Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I Guess Aqua Will Have To Cancel Its Iran Tour Dates

From the Associated Press:

A top Iranian judiciary official warned Monday against the "destructive" cultural and social consequences of importing Barbie dolls and other Western toys.

In the latest salvo in a more than decade-old government campaign against Barbie, Prosecutor General Ghorban Ali Dori Najafabadi said in an official letter to Vice President Parviz Davoudi that the doll and other Western toys are a "danger" that need to be stopped.

"The irregular importation of such toys, which unfortunately arrive through unofficial sources and smuggling, is destructive culturally and a social danger," said the letter, a copy of which was made available to The Associated Press.

Iranian markets have been inundated with smuggled Western toys in recent years partly due to a dramatic rise in purchasing power as a result of increased oil revenues.

While importing the toys is not necessarily illegal, it is discouraged by a government that seeks to protect Iranians from what it calls the negative effects of Western culture.

Najafabadi said the increasing visibility of Western dolls has alarmed authorities and they are considering intervening.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Kids Are All Right

CNN:Jenna Bush May Not Back McCain
President Bush was quick to endorse John McCain when the Arizona senator wrapped up his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

But another Bush might not be so sure.

Speaking with CNN's Larry King Wednesday night, Jenna Bush said she hasn't decided yet who she will vote for in November.

"I don't know," Jenna Bush, daughter of President and Mrs. Bush, said when asked if she will back McCain.

"Of course [I am open]. I mean, who isn't open to learning about the candidates and I'm sure that everybody's like that," she added.

Though the younger Bush conceded she has "been too busy with books to really pay that much attention."

Meanwhile, mother Laura Bush was quick to affirm that she will be voting for the Republican candidate in the fall.

The two appeared on the show to discuss Jenna Bush's upcoming wedding next month.

"[It will be] outdoors, very small wedding, you 'know, very small, all relatives, our families, really, kind of big," Jenna Bush said. “So it's half-family and then half very close friends."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Carter's Political Lesson for Today

Proving once again that engagement works far better than isolation, Jimmy Carter announced that his meetings with the leaders of Hamas and Syria bore potential fruit, they pledged to follow a peaceful solution to their relationship with Israel.

It's news that should be taken with cautious optimism. Nothing should be taken for granted in Mid-East politics, especially when it comes to Arab-Israeli relations. But the fact is that in a few days Carter achieved more for peace and stability in the Middle East than the Bush did in his entire administration. It underlines the entire problem of the Bush and neocon approach to global politics. Strong arming political rivals and labeling them as terrorists (in Syria's case, with little or no evidence to support it) does not elicit cooperation or win hearts and minds. Engaging with another country or organization (especially one as popular as Hamas), whenever possible, will get better results.

The neocons worship Ronald Reagan like a demigod, mostly for his role in ending the Cold War. While I often feel that Reagan's role here has been overstated (all US presidents and democratic world leaders between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War had a role to play), Reagan's open relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev helped to create positive changes in Russia and eventually ended communist rule. In fact, one of the key Republican contributions to foreign policy in the past forty years was to open up more dialogue with Communist countries. The major (and some might say only) positive of Nixon's administration was opening relations with China. It is ironic, then, that the neocons who so worship Reagan and his example only follow part of it; they play up the show of military force but ignore the political strategies he employed. And that's not to be a full endorsement of Ronald Reagan; he still one of the most overrated presidents, but it is worth noting how a dual strategy is far more effective.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Pope and Circumstance

The pope is on his first visit to America and he's been making headlines since he arrived. It's been a surprise just how positive the reaction to his visit has been given the controversy over the clergy sex abuse scandal and the dwindling numbers of Catholics attending church. As it turns out, Benedict has been received with as much fanfare as a hero returning home from a triumphant battle.

President Bush greeted Benedict at the White House with the biggest public reception ever set up for a foreign dignitary during his administration. Exactly why he was given such royal treatment is a mystery. Bush is not Catholic nor is he up for reelection and Catholics don't hold the same kind of political capital in America that evangelicals do. It could be that papal visits to America are infrequent and this one of Bush's last opportunities to make a splash before he leaves office. Or maybe his is just happy that someone still takes him seriously.

Despite their differences on Iraq and the environment, Bush and Pope Benedict have a lot in common. They both oppose science if it contradicts tenets of faith, they both fear secularism, they oppose gay marriage and the legitimacy homosexuality, neither will support comprehensive sex education, and both are anti-choice.

One particular item from the White House ceremony stuck out, as Bush welcomed the Benedict in a speech and allied himself with the pontiff, telling the audience that it should “reject this dictatorship of relativism.” The composition of that sentence is interesting. Bush invokes the American fear of dictatorship (although if the Bush Administration has been marked by anything, it is the consolidation of power by the executive branch) and connects it to the idea of relativism. It is similar to the invention of terms like "Islamo-fascism" and the constant comparison of moderately threatening bullies (such as Saddam Hussein or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) to Adolf Hitler. How or where relativism, acknowledging that ethics and morality are social constructions and may differ between cultures or periods of time, has taken absolute power over America is not explained. Looking at the state of the so-called "culture war," it seems less like absolutists versus relativists and more like various groups of absolutists fighting for supremacy. Bush and Benedict, although coming at the issue from slightly different angles, represent one of those absolute groups: those who claim that the Christian god bestows an unchanging and universal moral law through scripture.

Reading between the lines, Bush and Benedict's statements on "the dictatorship of relativism" would seem to be at odds with the other main item of both their speeches, which celebrated the plurality of American society. With plurality comes differing perspectives and a degree of relativism is necessary in a democratic and diverse society. In a single event, these two men at once celebrated people of differing backgrounds and opinions while at the same time decrying the legitimacy of views that differ from their own.

The other major topic of Benedict's visit has been mending the wounds left by the clergy sex abuse scandal. Benedict admitted that the church had not handled the cases of abuse very well and said that he was very ashamed of it. What reporters neglected to discuss is that Benedict, in his former office in the church, was the chief architect of the scandal. He was in charge of disciplining priests who break the church’s rules and he established the method of dealing with the abuse, which was based upon concealing the act, at least until the statute of limitations ran out. This turned what may have otherwise been isolated cases into cycles of abuse, where priests committed crimes in one diocese, then were moved to another where they re-offended. Benedict’s allegiance and concerns lay with the well being of the Church, not with its members, who were threatened and intimidated for exposing the abuse. So as Benedict claims that the abuse was mishandled, he does not admit that he was among those who mishandled it and evades responsibility.

So what did Benedict offer as an excuse for the abuse children by clergy? When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and when in America, the pope blamed the media. He told an audience of Bishops:

What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today? We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike. All have a part to play in this task - not only parents, religious leaders, teachers and catechists, but the media and entertainment industries as well.

This is a lame excuse for child abuse, especially when it comes from the leader of an organization that claims to be the bastion of moral authority on earth.

The other angle to the molestation that has not been discussed in the pope’s visit or even in most mainstream media discussions, has been the history of the abuse. Most media commentators speak about the abuse as though it was an isolated incident that started in 2002 and ended shortly thereafter. In truth, clergy abuse is systemic, ongoing, and traces back to at least the Middle Ages. It is worth noting that this abuse correlates with the start of the Catholic Church’s mandate of celibacy. It is also worth mentioning that on many newscasts the coverage of the Benedict’s visit is juxtaposed with coverage of the raid on the polygamist compound in Texas. And while the pope has pledge that this behavior will not be tolerated, he has taken no steps to amend church policies and structures that continue to support and even encourage abuse.

But none of this discussed in the coverage of Benedict’s visit. On the contrary, I witnessed a number of news correspondents admit on camera that they were Catholic and then gush about how being in the pope's presence made them feel warm and fuzzy. This stinks of the same kind of fanfare that precipitated the Bush Administration’s build up to the war in Iraq and the two-week memorial coverage of the death of Ronald Reagan. It is a lazy effort that once again dispels the myth of the “liberal media.”

Benedict has a few more days in the states and I’ll be keeping an eye on the charade for a few more outrages. I’d enjoy some coverage that had some journalistic integrity by reporters who had done their research, but I’m not holding my breath.

Monday, April 14, 2008

CNN: Riots, instability spread as food prices skyrocket

Riots from Haiti to Bangladesh to Egypt over the soaring costs of basic foods have brought the issue to a boiling point and catapulted it to the forefront of the world's attention, the head of an agency focused on global development said Monday.

"This is the world's big story," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute.

"The finance ministers were in shock, almost in panic this weekend," he said on CNN's "American Morning," in a reference to top economic officials who gathered in Washington. "There are riots all over the world in the poor countries ... and, of course, our own poor are feeling it in the United States."

World Bank President Robert Zoellick has said the surging costs could mean "seven lost years" in the fight against worldwide poverty.

"While many are worrying about filling their gas tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs, and it is getting more and more difficult every day," Zoellick said late last week in a speech opening meetings with finance ministers.

"The international community must fill the at least $500 million food gap identified by the U.N.'s World Food Programme to meet emergency needs," he said. "Governments should be able to come up with this assistance and come up with it now."

The White House announced Monday evening that an estimated $200 million in emergency food aid would be made available through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"This additional food aid will address the impact of rising commodity prices on U.S. emergency food aid programs, and be used to meet unanticipated food aid needs in Africa and elsewhere," the White House said in a news release.

"In just two months," Zoellick said in his speech, "rice prices have skyrocketed to near historical levels, rising by around 75 percent globally and more in some markets, with more likely to come. In Bangladesh, a 2-kilogram bag of rice ... now consumes about half of the daily income of a poor family."

The price of wheat has jumped 120 percent in the past year, he said -- meaning that the price of a loaf of bread has more than doubled in places where the poor spend as much as 75 percent of their income on food.

"This is not just about meals forgone today or about increasing social unrest. This is about lost learning potential for children and adults in the future, stunted intellectual and physical growth," Zoellick said.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, also spoke at the joint IMF-World Bank spring meeting.

"If food prices go on as they are today, then the consequences on the population in a large set of countries ... will be terrible," he said.

He added that "disruptions may occur in the economic environment ... so that at the end of the day most governments, having done well during the last five or 10 years, will see what they have done totally destroyed, and their legitimacy facing the population destroyed also."

In Haiti, the prime minister was kicked out of office Saturday, and hospital beds are filled with wounded following riots sparked by food prices.

The World Bank announced a $10 million grant from the United States for Haiti to help the government assist poor families.

In Egypt, rioters have burned cars and destroyed windows of numerous buildings as police in riot gear have tried to quell protests.

Images from Bangladesh and Mozambique tell a similar story.

In the United States and other Western nations, more and more poor families are feeling the pinch. In recent days, presidential candidates have paid increasing attention to the cost of food, often citing it on the stump.

The issue is also fueling a rising debate over how much the rising prices can be blamed on ethanol production. The basic argument is that because ethanol comes from corn, the push to replace some traditional fuels with ethanol has created a new demand for corn that has thrown off world food prices.

Jean Ziegler, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, has called using food crops to create ethanol "a crime against humanity."

"We've been putting our food into the gas tank -- this corn-to-ethanol subsidy which our government is doing really makes little sense," said Columbia University's Sachs.

Former President Clinton, at a campaign stop for his wife in Pennsylvania over the weekend, said, "Corn is the single most inefficient way to produce ethanol because it uses a lot of energy and because it drives up the price of food."

Some environmental groups reject the focus on ethanol in examining food prices.

"The contrived food vs. fuel debate has reared its ugly head once again," the Renewable Fuels Association says on its Web site, adding that "numerous statistical analyses have demonstrated that the price of oil -- not corn prices or ethanol production -- has the greatest impact on consumer food prices because it is integral to virtually every phase of food production, from processing to packaging to transportation."

Analysts agree the cost of fuel is among the reasons for the skyrocketing prices.

Another major reason is rising demand, particularly in places in the midst of a population boom, such as China and India.

Also, said Sachs, "climate shocks" are damaging food supply in parts of the world. "You add it all together: Demand is soaring, supply has been cut back, food has been diverted into the gas tank. It's added up to a price explosion."


Sunday, April 13, 2008

KMSU Spring Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM, The Maverick, is currently holding its spring pledge drive. Your donations, however much they may be, are greatly appreciated and necessary to keep the station on the air. Please support independent radio in the southern Minnesota area by making a pledge. You can call into the station at 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also visit the contact page of the station's website and send an email. If you leave a voice mail message or send an email, please leave your name, address phone number, and amount you would like to pledge. If using a credit card, please do not send any card information, as this is not secure.

You can find more information on how donations help KMSU here.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Best Little Religious Compound In Texas

When the reports first broke about the raid on the polygamist compound in El Dorado, I remained skeptical. The initial reports reminded me too much of the Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax and the Waco disaster, and far too many of the television anchors and reporters I watched referred to the organization as a cult when in fact it is a sect. This is an important distinction. A cult is a group that bears no affiliation with a religious tradition, where a sect is a branch of an established religious group, in this case Christianity. It may seem like splitting hairs, but the labels we use for these groups matter. When a group is labeled as a cult, as happened in Waco and other places, they become an "other" that is less than human and must be exterminated.

As coverage has continued, it has become apparent that the raid on the compound may very well have been deserved, as evidence of the sect's activities comes to light. A lot of pundits and commentators are aghast at the activities, and rightfully so, but given a wider view it should not be so surprising. The overly pious seem to be predisposed to struggle with their sexuality, either by rallying against homosexuality and other non-mainstream sexual activity and then turning around and engaging it themselves or participating in predatory sexual behavior. Consider a few recent examples:
  • Ted Haggard, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals and an opponent of homosexual rights, admitted to using meth and engaging in gay sex with a male prostitute.
  • Mark Foley, a former Florida congressman and supposed defender of exploited children, was found to have sent lewd emails and text messages to teenage boys in the congressional paige program.
  • Larry Craig, an opponent of gay marriage and a critic of Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, was arrested for soliciting sex in a public restroom.
  • David Vitter, another opponent of gay marriage, was found to be using the services of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "DC Madam."
  • Earl Paulk, the leader of an Atlanta mega-church admitted to sleeping with his brother's wife and making her pregnant. He now faces charges of perjury.
  • Jehovah's Witness leader William Bowen confessed to molesting as many as forty-two girls.
  • Douglass Goodman, a leader of one of the largest churches in the UK, was found guilty of sexually assaulting members of his church.
  • New York governor Elliot Spitzer, who prosecuted Wall Street bankers and others for misappropriations of funds and related charges when he was the state's attorney general, admitted to funneling money into the use of prostitutes.
Of course there are also the ongoing allegations of child abuse in the Catholic Church, and sexual abuse of women and children is much more common in Islam than might be expected, given the lack of coverage and the religion's hard line on sexual discipline.

As the commentators ask how this grotesque abuse alleged to have happened in El Dorado could happen in the twenty-first century, don't be so surprised. It is a very real part of the Abrahamic religious landscape and it does not require a secretive compound in the desert to accomplish it. It's happening now, under our very noses, and it's often being perpetuated by the very people who claim to be the defenders of our culture.