Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lost Albatross year in review

In the grand tradition of navel-gazing, end-of-year posts, I offer you now the Lost Albatross anno mundi 2008! Here's wishing you all a festive and safe New Years Eve, and a good new year. And as always, thanks so much for reading.

Total posts in 2008:
307 (counting this one)

Posts with most comments:
Posts with most hits:
Top keywords:
  • (353) lost albatross
  • (343) pizza brutta
  • (139) rights of illegal immigrants
  • (126) the lost albatross
  • (109) emily mills
Weirdest/most random keywords:
  • albatross plastic
  • obama babies
  • the gutter post blogspot
  • naughty nurses
  • ron paul nutter
  • techno emo bands
Most hits on the blog in one day:
  • 249 on Sept. 16 - presumably in response to one of these posts.
Most fascinating series of rant-like comments from, one can only assume, the subject of the post himself:
(Current status of the case.)

Personal favorites:
Here are some photos I took, by month:

We really did get an awful lot of snow last winter.
...which worked out fine for this guy, at the Madison Winter Festival.
The snow didn't keep then candidate Barack Obama, or the crowd of 70,000+, away from the Kohl center, either.


The Human Rights Torch, a protest against the Olympics being held in China, came through Madison in April.


Art Bike Rally!
Tegan and Sara performing at the Barrymore Theatre.
A trip to visit friends and nightmarish, post-apocalyptic landscapes in the Bay Area, CA.


Louisville, Kentucky, for their Kino chapter's 48-hour film Kabaret.


My first Madison Flickr group photo walk.


Ah, memories. The Civil War Experience up at Wade House.
I got to cover the National Poetry Slam finals, which was a lot of fun.


Monotonix performing at the first-ever Forward Music Fest. One of the best live shows I saw all year.
The Willy Street Fair! Always a good time.

The tenth annual International Drag King Extravaganza, in Columbus, Ohio.

Protesting the passage of Prop 8 in California, right here in Wisconsin.
My Brightest Diamond performing at the Orpheum Stage Door Theatre.

The Chin in person!

And last but not least, my sister's adorable chihuahua, taking a nap post Christmas festivities.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

History may not be on their side

With so much bad blood over so many years flowing between them, Israel and Palestine face daunting odds when it comes to the dream of establishing a meaningful and lasting peace.

Many (but not all) Israelis believe that permanent settlement of the land is their God-given right, some have simply lived there all their lives and don't wish to leave a place they consider home. Meanwhile, Palestinians likely feel as though they live under an illegal occupation begun by UN mandate and continued through Israeli governmental force. It is, obviously, an incredibly volatile situation.

Neither side is wholly guilty or wholly innocent in this mess, but it can be extremely difficult for the various involved parties to see that, given the deeply personal stakes.

For anyone to criticize Israel is seen by some to be anti-Semitic. Who wants to be accused of that, especially when the specter of the Holocaust is raised as part of the accusation? But it is absolutely essential that we all be allowed to have an open and honest dialogue concerning the actions of the modern Israeli state in regards to their Palestinian/Arab neighbors. To ignore any and all abuses of power by them would be to do a gross disservice not only to those immediately effected by the problems, but also to those ancestors who actually lived through Nazi persecution.

I heard an Israeli man quoted on NPR yesterday in regards to the current bombing campaign in Gaza. He said he wanted to "see them eradicated." The utter irony of a Jewish person calling for the devastation of an entire people apparently flew right over his head, and that, quite frankly, is incredibly sad.

Too, the extreme degree of violence being leveled against the Palestinians by Israel is appalling. In alleged response to a couple of rockets (honestly, it probably goes back further than that), the country has sent its airforce to bomb various buildings throughout the strip. Doesn't this seem a little, I don't know, disproportionate? Here's another example of the disparity:
I see the frustration on both sides. Far too many people, both civilian and military, have been needlessly killed in this seemingly never-ending conflict. Most folks, both Palestinian and Israeli, simply want to be able to go about their lives in peace, with access to basic needs like clean water, food, and medicine, and with relatively safe streets and schools for their children.

But Hamas and other militant groups (and even heads of state) insist that they want to wipe Israel off the map, and/or kill all of the Jews. That, too, is disgusting and reprehensible. So is sending random rockets into civilian areas.

None of the actors in this are innocent, none without blood on their hands. But no one else should have to die, either. Someone has to step up and put an end to the ridiculous cycle of retaliation--no matter what. Set aside history, set aside pride, set aside political or religious ideology and just stop. That's what it will take.

I know, I know--it's not so easy as all that. There are always rogue players involved who will try their damnedest to spoil any attempts at peace. But let them become the outcasts, reviled for their violent tactics, while the rest rise above and work toward something far more meaningful.

Then again, maybe things are just too far gone. Maybe there can never be a peaceful co-existence between Israeli and Palestinian, regardless of any new partition or independence. That would be, in my opinion, a great tragedy - and a hard lesson learned about what happens when outside forces move into a place and impose their will without any consideration for the native population, and when religious extremism on all sides becomes the rule of the day.

Extreme reactions breed extreme reactions.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Scapegoating or no, it doesn't end here

I'm a little late to the game here, but I can honestly blame the holidays for the delay. What can I say? Blogging should always fall by the wayside when family is in town.

Anyway, an article in the Wisconsin State Journal (and probably several other news outlets) details the recent suspension of former 911 operator Rita Gahagan in response to how she mishandled the call from slain UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann back in April.

While I agree that some form of disciplinary action against Gahagan, who claims she couldn't hear the sounds of a woman screaming and an ensuing struggle (as recently declassified police reports state), and then failed to follow up on the call, is necessary - I don't feel comfortable saying that all blame lies on her shoulders alone.

Gahagan did, after all, request a transfer prior to the incident (why was that, anyway?), and otherwise seems to have had a stellar performance history at the center. Did she mess up on that particular call? It would absolutely appear to be so. But were there (and are there still) system wide problems within the 911 call center? That would also appear to be the case. And we cannot allow officials to sweep all of this under the rug with a simple 3-day suspension of a rank-and-file operator who has long since been demoted to a different department.

Much remains unanswered: Why did the public get several different (and often contradictory) stories from various officials immediately following the murder? Why did some of them then appear to attempt a cover-up of the facts? Why were the police reports "accidentally" unsealed recently? Why didn't Falk and others more quickly and effectively follow up on suggestions made by a consulting company years ago to update the 911 center's equipment and procedures?

We need to keep asking these questions, and demanding answers, until we get to the point where a tragic incident like the one involving Brittany Zimmermann simply cannot happen.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The 12 Days of Christmas: Lend a helping hand

December 25 marks the beginning of what's traditionally referred to as "the 12 Days of Christmas" - and if you don't know exactly what that is, I'm sure you're at least familiar with the song. But as defined, the 12 days are:

...the associated evenings of those twelve days (Twelve-tide), are the festive days beginning the evening of Christmas Day through the morning of Epiphany (January 6). The associated evenings of the twelve days begin on the evening before the specified day. Thus, the first night of Christmas is December 25–26, and Twelfth Night is January 5–6. This period is also known as Christmastide.

The 12 days has its origins in the pre-Christian Scandinavian Winter Solstice, in which the Midwinter Feast lasted at least twelve days, hence the twelve days of Christmas.
This seems like as good a time as any to start a Lost Albatross tradition of giving--or, in this case, lending. I've set up a "lending team" through, a great non-profit site that connects people across the world through what are called microloans. I'll let them explain the process:

Kiva's mission is to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty.

Kiva is the world's first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs in the developing world.

The people you see on Kiva's site are real individuals in need of funding - not marketing material. When you browse entrepreneurs' profiles on the site, choose someone to lend to, and then make a loan, you are helping a real person make great strides towards economic independence and improve life for themselves, their family, and their community. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive email journal updates and track repayments. Then, when you get your loan money back, you can relend to someone else in need.

Go check out the site, look around a little, and please consider signing up to make a loan. Then when you do, you can opt to have your loan count toward the total for the Lost Albatross lending team! All repayments still go directly to you, but your efforts will be part of our little network, too.

This is the traditional time of year to think about giving, but I hope to continue these efforts into the "off-season" as well. I can't think of a better way to really help people get on their feet and then to sustain themselves. Instead of just giving a single gift, we're helping people in need to be able to provide for themselves and their communities in the long-term. And that, I think, is what it's all about.

Please consider signing up with Kiva, and joining the Lost Albatross team. And regardless, happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Definition of Marriage

I have been thinking long and hard about Obama's selection of Rev. Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. It's hard not to take it as a slap in the face to the LGBT community, and those who've fought for their equal rights in general. But it's also hard not to see it as a purely political maneuver. Warren is, after all, one of the more palatable of the evangelical super-pastors, what with his heavier focus on poverty and environmental issues. And Obama is, after all, a politician hoping to draw in a larger coalition of supporters. If you're going to appeal to the conservative, evangelical base without completely alienating your more liberal supporters, Warren may seem like the smart choice.

I can see all of that, and I'll be the first to point it out when people start raving about how ridiculous they think Warrengate is - and yet, I also agree with them.

We're talking about the fundamental rights and equality of our fellow citizens here. It is not something that should be left to the whims of political tactics or fickle majorities. At the same time, though, we don't want to completely ostracize those who disagree with our beliefs. We want them to come over to our side. It is difficult, however, to balance a no-bull approach to attaining equal rights with the patient, educational, compassionate approach needed to bring more people into the fold.

After all, it is quite difficult to understand how and why some folks continue to wish to deny basic rights to their fellow man.

Warren is an interesting case, and somewhat illustrative of the larger anti-gay marriage movement these days. He has stated, on record, that he thinks of gay marriage as being synonymous with pedophilia and bestiality, which is about as ridiculous and insulting as it gets.*

Worse, in responding to an interview with Beliefnet wherein he equated gay relationships with pedophilia and bestiality, he went semantic and claimed that:
...he didn't mean to say that gay relationships are like incest and pedophilia, just that gay marriage is. "I was not saying those relationships are the same thing", he says, adding that "I'm opposed to any redefinition of the definition of marriage."
And there's the buzz phrase: "redefinition of marriage." What folks who keep trotting this defense out fail to grasp, no matter how many times it's pointed out to them, is that marriage has been redefined hundreds of times throughout history and across cultures. Marriage today is not even the same thing that it was 50-100 years ago, when women were still predominantly expected to take their husband's name, get handed off by their fathers, have few rights over their children in the case of divorce (if even allowed to divorce in the first place), etc. Heck, a woman wasn't even allowed to say "no" to sex with her husband and have it be considered rape if he forced her into it anyway.

Things change. And they should change. I, for one, have no desire to live in a society where women are treated as property, with no say in how a marriage progresses, no control over her own body, and even no control over just how many wives her husband might decide to take. That's traditional marriage, so you'll excuse me if I have to laugh when people still make that argument.

Unless that's what they secretly want back. In which case, we have even less common ground than I thought, and this is a much larger problem.

Ultimately, I believe that religious marriage should be left entirely up to the individuals and churches involved. You can marry (or not) whoever you like, but it's not going to be recognized on a federal or state level. For all of the actual rights and regulations, we should really stick to a federal civil unions type agreement for all couples, gay and straight. Keep church and state separate, you know?

Thing is, I suspect at least some of the people crowing about "traditional marriage" wouldn't like that solution, either, because deep down, they're just plum uncomfortable with gay folks in general. That's why their surface arguments don't make any sense. They're not being honest, and instead grasping at slightly less inflammatory straws. Frankly, I wish they'd just come out and say what they mean, because at least that way, we'd be able to more effectively deal with the real issues: homophobia and fear.

I'm not happy that Obama chose Warren to give the invocation, and I suspect there were better choices out there, but it's not a deal-breaker, either. I have to hope that, in addition to the political maneuvering involved, Obama did this as a way to extend compassion even to those who disagree with us--which is an important part of the march toward true equality. We must remember, though, that while we shouldn't hate or cause violence toward those with different viewpoints, we should also refuse to compromise on that equality. We can maintain a sense of civility and a loud, strong, proud voice for change, all at the same time. It may not be easy, but it is possible--and, I would argue, necessary.

*Equating things like pedophilia, bestiality, and polygamy with same-sex marriage is not only insulting, but also extremely fallacious. The former arrangements cannot be consensual, being that they involve minors or animals (who we define as being unable to give consent) - or in the case of polygamy, are unequal and sexist situations wherein a man basically owns several women. Same-sex marriage, on the other hand, is a consensual agreement between two adults who are not immediately related (by blood) to one another. So you can argue until you're blue in the face about how "unnatural" you think it is, but you cannot argue that gay marriage is anything at all like pedophilia, etc.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Favorite new music of 2008

Oh for cryin' out loud, I can almost hear you thinking--not another year-end "best of" list!

Well, I can't help myself. We're all prone to a little nostalgia now and then, and in this case I can at least excuse the exercise by noting that it's my way of sharing some awesome tunes with everyone.

Frankly, ever since I was but a wee lass, spinning my mom's old 45's on a little plastic Fisher Price record player, I've been a huge music nerd who wanted nothing more than to share great music with other people. I used to record myself on tape cassettes, pretending to be a radio DJ and playing everything from "My Blue Heaven" by Fats Domino to "Turtle Power" by Partners In Kryme (the K and Y stand for awesome, and also jelly) from the TMNT movie soundtrack. Boss!

Anyway, a friend of mine recently introduced me to the year-end mix tape concept, wherein you compile your favorite songs that came out in the year past and then hand them out as a gift to all of your friends and such. Good idea, I thought! But since I can't hand you said mix tape through the internet (that would probably be illegal or something), I thought I'd at least give you the list and some handy links, so you can choose whether or not to check out some of my recommendations--or just deride me for having no taste. Your pick!

Here we go: Emily's Favorite New Music of 2008!
(in no particular order)

1. "Pluto" by Clare and the Reasons, from the album The Movie (on Frog Stand Records).
I first heard this beautiful band live, when they opened for My Brightest Diamond. Both adorablely sweet and many-layered, their music is infectious and lovingly crafted. This particular song, more-or-less about the cast out planetoid, is a great example of their overall work.

2. "The Romance of Wolves" by Roma di Luna, from the album Casting the Bones (indie).
Thanks to the Just Sayin' Is All blog, I now have this wonderful little band from Minneapolis in my life. With resonant female vocals, and a cross between gypsy and indie country sensibilities, I wouldn't be surprised to see this band taking off in the near future.

3. "Bus Bus" by Amy Ray, from the album Didn't It Feel Kinder (on Daemon Records).
Good ol' Amy Ray. It wasn't enough for her to be one-half of the always popular Indigo Girls, she had to break out the electric guitar for some very fine solo work, too. This is just solid, fun, foot-stomping rock and roll right here.

4. "Lights Out" by Santogold, from the album Santogold (on Downtown/Lizard King Records).
I have NPR to thank for introducing me to Santogold. And I love this album. It goes from super catchy, well thought out indie rock (with definite hints of early 80's new wave like Siouxie and the Banshees) to crazy awesome dub electro without skipping a beat.

5. "People Not Places (ft. Abeer)" by Invincible, from the album Shapeshifters (on Emergence Records).
Who cares if Invincible is a female rapper? She's just damn good. This particular song is a great mix between deft rhymes, lovely guest vocals, and expert production work.

6. "Thou Shalt Always Kill" by dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip, from the album Angles (on Sunday Best).
Scroobius Pip deserves heaps of credit for coming up with a hilarious and poignant commentary on popular culture, but the unsung hero is definitely dan le sac, who puts together some really fantastic beats and bloops to accompany it with. Thou shalt not question Stephen Fry.

7. "Magic Doors" by Portishead, from the album Three (on Island Records).
Sigh. Oh how I love this group. And it had been quite a long while since their last record. Perfection takes time! On their third release, Portishead manages to maintain their signature sound without rehashing old ground, producing music that is both innovative and comforting. Seriously, if you don't have this record yet, why not?

8. "Harry Potter" by El Guante, from the album El Guante's Haunted Studio Apartment (on Tru Ruts/Speakeasy Records).
Yeah yeah, so El Guante is something of a friend of mine, but I can honestly say that I really, really like his music. This most recent effort shows a great deal of maturity, both in Guante's vocal stylings and the production work. The Twin Cities agree with him. Plus there's some amazing beat box work by See More Perspective. This particular song, though, gets extra credit for working in Harry Potter references without becoming corny.

9. "Electric Bird" by Sia, from the album Some People Have Real Problems (on Hear Music).
How does such a beautiful, soaring, intense voice come out of such a cute little blonde Englishwoman? I have no idea, but I'm glad it does. Sia has the rare talent of being the producer of finely crafted, epic-seeming music that never takes itself too seriously. And her music videos are always highly entertaining. In this song, though, it's the horn section that takes center stage, and to great effect.

10. "Skinny Bones" by the Ditty Bops, from the album Summer Rains (on the Green Witch Society).
I have a crush on the Ditty Bops. I've been fortunate enough to see them live every time they've swung through Madison, and every time they've put on some of the best stage shows I've ever seen. With elements of swing, jazz, folk, pop, and more, they create incredibly catchy, heartfelt tunes and promote excellent social causes all along the way. And hey! They've been nominated for a Grammy for the jacket design on this album, which they should totally win.

11. "Gobbledigook" by Sigur Rós, from the album Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (on XL Recordings).
Known mostly for creating elaborate and painfully beautiful soundscapes, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sigur Ros's new album branches out a bit into some more up-tempo work--all without losing the core of what makes the music great.

12. "Ojo de Culebra (ft. La Mari)" by Lila Downs, from the album Shake Away (on Manhattan Records).
Lila Downs will own your soul!

13. "Freeway" by Aimee Mann, from the album Smilers (on Superego Records).
Solid. Good. Some people are still stuck on the whole 'Til Tuesday thing, but c'mon, Aimee Mann has put out a ton of far better music since then and those folks really ought to get with the times. Her new record, and this song especially, is just lovely stuff.

14. "Creature Fear" by Bon Iver, from the album For Emma, Forever Ago (on Jagjaguwar).
The new hotness for the latter half of '08, Bon Iver may be one of the rare instances of a next-big-thing actually deserving of the praise. It doesn't hurt that he wrote this album while cloistered away in the woods of northern Wisconsin (woo! woo!).

15. "Apple" by My Brightest Diamond, from the album A Thousand Shark's Teeth (on Asthmatic Kitty Records).
Two words: thumb piano. Plus, MBD's Shara Worden possesses one of the most hauntingly beautiful voices of anyone making pop music today. With deft string arrangements, interesting lyrical stories, and enchanting (yeah, I said it) melodies, this is a fabulous record and a really cool song.

16. "Something In My Mind" by One-Two, from the album The Story of Bob Star (indie)
I stumbled onto this song completely at random and fell in love with it. This is what pop is supposed to be. Plus, the song is part of a larger rock opera. A rock opera! Awesome.

17. "The Horror" by Aporia, from the album Aporia (indie).
Faux-paux! This is totally my band, and that's totally me screaming lines for classic horror flicks. I don't care. I like this song and think it's tons o' fun.

So, this certainly isn't a comprehensive list - it's just new music that I happened to stumble onto and/or know about this year, and liked very much. Feel free to make your own recommendations in the comments section! I love nothing so much as being lead to other fabulous music. And please, if you dig any of these songs, support the artists by buying the records!

(cross-posted at

Friday, December 19, 2008

I wrote a book!

It's true! Last year, I actually buckled down and completed a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month (wherein you must hit the 50k word mark in 1 month). Since then, I've been hacking away at it, drafting a few writer friends to help provide edits and suggestions, and generally whipping it into shape.

Now, I am giddily excited to say that said novel, The Fix Up, is available in honest-to-goodness book form. I went through a company called CreateSpace (which is an Amazon affiliate), which provides really high-quality print-on-demand services for books, CDs, and DVDs. Turned out to be a pretty good deal, really.

I realize that this is just self-publishing, and not as fancy pancy as getting a novel published by some big publishing house (that'll come, just you wait!), but I still happen to think it's pretty cool. Honestly, this whole print-on-demand thing may well be the future of publishing for everyone.

In the meantime, it's my present. And I would love it if I even sold, like, 10 copies. So hey! If you're in the mood for some entertaining fiction, head on over to my store and check it out.

I will also be making copies available through me, myself, and I, for just $10 (I should mention that this will happen in about a week, at which time I will post about it again). Heck, I'd even sign 'em if for some crazy reason you were into that sort of thing. So if you're interested in that method, drop me a line at lostalbatross at and we can arrange to either make the trade in person or by mail (U.S. only, and no extra cash for shipping).

Here's the somewhat generic teaser I whipped up for the book, to wet your whistle:
Chapel's not having a good decade. Released from prison for a crime she doesn't particularly want to talk about, she's looking to lead a more normal, legal life - but life, that bastard, has a few curve balls aimed at her head.

Befriended by a couple of well-connected street punks, Chapel finds herself navigating a treacherous underworld filled with drugs, betrayal, sexual ambiguity, crime, crooked cops, and death. All she really wanted to do, though, was make rent.

Inspired by the short film series and character created by Rob Matsushita, The Fix Up is equal parts suspense thriller and introspective, darkly humorous personal journey.
Those short films I reference are "Complicated" and "Distracted," in case you're curious.

So yeah, it's not the Great American Novel, but I'm happy with it. Nice to actually finish a novel for once in quite a long while, too. I may post a small excerpt from it in the near future, so you can get a better idea of what you'd be in for. That seems fair, anyway. Regardless, please check it out! And have a great weekend.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Is Madison a post-gay bar city?

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about two new gay-oriented establishments opening up in Madison: Restaurant XO2 over on the far west side, and Plan B on the near east. Both have already come in for their fair share of criticism and praise, much of the former based mostly--and somewhat surprisingly--on their respective locations and on Madison not really needing businesses that cater specifically to the LGBT crowd.

Certainly there have been some critics with a more homophobic bent, but the majority of the criticism seems to be coming from within. A thread on the topic over at the Daily Page forums addresses the issue specifically, and there are some interesting points being raised.

One commentator asks:
What's a gay bar for? Is it for hooking up? My sources tell me this is done much more efficiently on the web these days. Is it a place where gays can go have a drink and feel comfortable being themselves? I can understand why that would be good in, say, Birmingham, Ala., but seems like in Madison there are any number of joints that aren't gay bars but where queer folk can be perfectly comfortable. Is it a place to strengthen LGBT community? Is a bar the best place to do that?
Good question. We do seem to live in a society currently in transition between a place where people belonging to traditionally marginalized groups have to hide who they are, and a place where everyone can be open and honest without much fear of retaliation. Madison especially, though not perfectly, embodies the latter quality. We are not an overly closed-minded community, but that's not to say that it's one big gay utopia, either. Even so, shouldn't we be striving to move in a direction where every bar or restaurant is a place where anyone can go and be themselves?

Yes and no. My hunch is that there will always be a market for more niche establishments: from LGBT specific, to fetish clubs, to cigar bars, to sports pubs. A different TDP forum commentator makes another good point along this line:
I say all experience is useful, even as, you know, fertilizer. Without my gaybaristory, I would not have images of shirtless lesbians eating fire; turkey basters, jock straps, and a chainlink fence; or a drag queen dressed as nun knocking himself out on a rafter dancing on the bar. The comfort level is important. In a gaybar you don't have to make sure no one's looking if you want to be demonstrative.
And that's the rub, isn't it (no, I'm not talking about the shirtless, fire-eating lesbians--though that's certainly worth lengthy consideration). Even in a city as generally open and affirming as Madison, gay people still don't feel entirely comfortable being "demonstrative" in just any ol' public place. That's certainly something we should all be shooting to eradicate, but the hard truth is that it is not currently the case, and having "safe spaces" may well still be important for the community.

Sure, gay bars and restaurants aren't for everyone, even within the LGBT crowd. But I'd argue that they serve a crucial function for many others. They're a place for those just coming to terms with their sexuality to feel comfortable to explore. They're a place for community events, or just grabbing a drink with friends. Personally, I've always felt more comfortable in gay-friendly places, and I know a lot of others, gay and straight, who feel the same way.

Is Madison a post-gay bar city, then? Is there such a thing at all or are we jumping the gun a little bit here? I don't know. Frankly, I'm torn between wanting a future in which anyone can go anywhere and feel comfortable--and wanting to have places to go where I know I'll be among like-minded folk. Do those two scenarios have to be mutually exclusive, though? I'd like to think not.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Disproportionate force

While I was performing my own news dump last Friday, the government was up to some of its own, releasing a bipartisan report on detainee abuses and torture policies at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. And boy howdy, it sure doesn't pull any punches. Researched and compiled by the Senate Armed Forces Committee (including John McCain) and released without a single dissent, the report makes clear that "top officials" in the Bush White House were responsible for the reprehensible techniques used on prisoners in U.S. custody abroad.
"Senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees," said the report's 19-page unclassified executive summary. "Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."


The Senate report traces the abuses to a Feb. 7, 2002, Bush memo that declared that international law on the treatment of war prisoners embodied in the 1949 Geneva Convention didn't apply to al Qaida or to the Taliban. (emphasis mine)
The report goes on to name Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and Air Force Gen. Richard Myers (the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) - but this indication that the torture policies originated in a memo signed by President Bush himself is really the icing on this shit cake.

Some may call the report too little, too late, but I'm firmly of the opinion that so long as justice is done, it's never too late. What remains, now, is seeing that justice is done, which means holding the incoming Obama administration and justice officials accountable for making that happen. We've got the research, the evidence, and the official report that states, in no uncertain terms, that officials right up to the president were responsible for a massive breach of trust and violation of international laws. They must be held responsible and punished accordingly. Whether that means jail time or a lifetime of community service is up to judges, but something should be done.

Not only were their actions and policies morally reprehensible, but so too were the effects that such policies had on the United States' reputation abroad. I was glad to see that the report addressed this very problem: "Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."

Much of what the report has to say is what many people have suspected all along, but it's good to see it laid out in a solid, official medium. Now it's time to follow up. One of the many methods we need to employ to regain our stature and respect in the international community is to show a willingness to bring the bad actors in our ranks to justice. Instead of shrugging our shoulders and letting it all be bygones, we need to demonstrate our understanding of just how heinous these actions were, and that we are working to make sure it never happens again.

It should have been easily avoidable. The torture and harsh interrogation methods condemned in the report were "based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to elicit false confessions from captured American prisoners and adapted for use against U.S. detainees." How is it that that didn't raise any red flags (no pun intended)?

Andrew Sullivan has several good posts about this topic, in which he also questions those people who defended the techniques and charts the "intellectual collapse" of the American conservative movement as it related to that defense. He goes on to say:
When conservatism abandoned core values of American decency in favor of pure force, exemplified by torture techniques designed by Communists and Nazis, then it ceased to be conservative in the sense that Burke or Hayek or Oakeshott or Kirk would begin to understand. And watching the intellectual dishonesty of the right on this issue in the last few years has been a watershed for me. It has been, in my judgment, one long, awful surrender of truth to power.
And that's the crux of it: one long, awful surrender of truth to power. Something we, as Americans, were supposed to have long ago learned to be ever vigilant about preventing. Yet here we are. Fear and power prove themselves potent forces, once again.

This issue will likely (unfortunately) pop up time and time again, but I strongly suspect that a good way to prepare ourselves and deal with it more effectively in the future is to actually hold those responsible accountable, really accountable, instead of allowing their abuses to recede into the history books.

We also need to be better about demanding more immediate answers and explanations from our elected officials as these things happen, so that they're not allowed to go on as long as these policies did. We must not take their clever, 15-second soundbites at face value, but instead dig deeper until we get to the core of things. We must find a balance between expecting the best from our politicians and officers, and remaining rightfully skeptical of the official accounting of events.

Then maybe we stand a chance of attaining some real measure of equality and justice in this country, even if it is 232+ years better late than never.

EDIT TO ADD: Reliably so, Wisco over at the Griper Blade has an interesting take on the report. He's a little more cynical than me, but I can't says as I blames him.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The good news for Dec. 12, 2008

Friday news dump edition! The world is always full of news, really, but these days it does feel like there's an especially large pile of it weighing down on us. Terrorist attacks in India, a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe that's being ignored by its awful leader, worldwide economic collapse, etc. etc. So you'll understand why only one of my links is to something that's potentially good. It was hard to find!

  • [Capital Times] A new gay dance club may well be opening its doors on Willy St., should the neighborhood not object to its location. The name of the club, Plan B, is pretty silly, but generally I'm all for more gay-friendly establishments, especially ones that have good DJs (fingers crossed!).
  • [Salon] Oh Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, you may as well be a character in a David Mamet play. Happily, Choire Sicha has seen to it that we're made aware of the eerie (and hilarious) similarities. Next you'll be blaming women for everything that goes wrong in your life!
  • [Chicagoist] Speaking of Blagojevich, here's a hilarious illustration of the man parachuting himself into prison.
  • [San Francisco Chronicle] Still-President Bush is still pissing on everything good in this country, pushing through administrative rule changes that aim to effectively gut the Endangered Species Act. Screw polar bears and mountain frogs, am I right?! (I've written about some of the other fabulous last-minute changes the Bush admin is pushing through, too)
  • [Green Building Elements] Had to quick add this one, because it's so incredibly awesome and I want to do this for myself someday: Hand-Build an Earth Sheltered House for $5,000.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Blaska blows it on free speech

"Libel: An untruthful statement about a person, published in writing or through broadcast media, that injures the person's reputation or standing in the community. Because libel is a tort (a civil wrong), the injured person can bring a lawsuit against the person who made the false statement. Libel is a form of defamation , as is slander (an untruthful statement that is spoken, but not published in writing or broadcast through the media)."

Remember that word and its definition, as it will prove to be important in the following debate.

Dave Blaska, Isthmus' token blogger and reliably far-right guy, today takes on what he (and many other far right columnists) perceives to be an attack on free speech. He's mad about several things:
  • On the Friday before the Tuesday, November 4, general election, at the behest of the Democrat(ic) Party, a circuit court judge in Jackson County yanked a political advertisement off the airwaves without holding a hearing because he didn't like the ad.

  • Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board (the merged Ethics and Elections Boards) is about to manufacture rules governing third-party "issue ads," those being defined as advertisements not placed by the candidates themselves but by those who are interested in the results — aka: citizens.

  • The Wisconsin Judicial Commission has taken it upon itself to determine whether it agrees with an advertisement aired by successful State Supreme Court candidate Michael Gableman.

  • A Democrat(ic) Congress appears poised to re-instate the Orwellian-named "Fairness Doctrine" in order to shut down conservative talk radio.
Ignoring his continued misuse of the title of the political party with which he most disagrees, there are several points of contention within this neat bullet list.

What Blaska seems to be most upset about is the push to ban third-party issue ads during campaigns, and the push to force these third-parties to publish their lists of contributors. He muddies the issue by throwing in the panicky accusations about an alleged move to re-institute the Fairness Doctrine, even though no legislation has been introduced to that effect (even in the current, Democratically dominated Congress), and president-elect Barack Obama has stated that he does not support it. What Obama did say he supports, however, is more important:
In June 2008, Barack Obama's press secretary wrote that...Obama "does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters," but that he "considers this debate to be a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible," adding, "That is why Sen. Obama supports media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets."
Making sure one giant corporation doesn't own the majority of media outlets in a particular region seems more than reasonable to me, and would serve to make sure that multiple voices were able to find airspace without government intervention, simply by helping to insure diversity and accessibility. Net neutrality is something I'm also a big proponent of, and a subject well worth reading up on if you haven't already.

The Fairness Doctrine is a trickier beast, though, because it could easily be used for good or bad ends. It's difficult to debate the issue rationally, however, when both far sides tend to get a little hysterical over it. Folks like Blaska like to use it as a bogeyman to claim the squashing of their free speech rights, when all they really want is for conservative talk radio hacks to be able to go on spewing unsubstantiated claims and attacks (if this isn't true, then why do they only get up in arms when their ideological kin are singled out, and not folks on the other side?). Folks on the flip side may be inclined to let the government regulate what stations can and cannot air, which is also nonsense.

There is middle ground here.

First, we all need to come to terms with things like slander and libel, which are punishable offenses and not protected by the First Amendment. Mike Gableman's ad that heavily insinuated that Louis Butler had let a violent criminal out of jail who then went on to offend again is one such example. The ad was libelous. That's why the Wisconsin Judicial Commission has levied charges, and that's why Gableman has already been rebuked by several other organizations for the ad.

Banning such ads, or pulling them from the air, is not an attack on the free speech rights of anyone. It is done to uphold the law, and to keep it from being made a mockery of by those who seek to spread disinformation and lies. See "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" for a prime example.

Third party "issue ads" are notorious for this, and both the more liberal and conservative sides are guilty. Any regulation of these, as the Government Accountability Board is seeking to impose, should be limited to insuring that they are factually accurate, and don't make disparaging and, most importantly, unsubstantiated claims about a person's character. That's it.

(As for making public the list of donors to such ads and campaigns - I admit to being torn. One could make the argument that as voting is left anonymous so no one feels pressured to cast their ballot one way or another, one should be able to donate money to a cause/campaign without fear of retribution.)

Shouldn't we be arguing policies and plans, anyway? A candidate holds a position that you find abhorrent? Say so. A candidate voted for something you think was wrong? Say so! Explain why. Go ahead, just leave the vague, more-often-than-not baseless accusations out of it.

Free speech is one of most important rights we have as citizens. It should be guarded and exercised with vigor and persistence. But to claim that what is really nothing more than slander, libel, and other defamation, is and should be protected as "free speech" is to throw mud at the very concept.

Certainly we need to make sure that such regulations don't go too far in the other direction, but we can't do without them, either. Money should not equal unfettered access to public airwaves in order to make whatever claims you want about a given person or group. That would do the opposite of fostering a free and open democracy. Hey Dave, is that what you want?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Life without the gays

The gays!

Well, today is the "official" Day Without A Gay (for the record, I think that name is both hilarious and awful, but hell, it works). What's that, you ask? In response to the passage of Prop 8 in California, as well as all of the other anti-gay marriage acts in various states, some folks put together this day of action wherein LGBT citizens call in sick to work and instead spend the day helping out with some community organizin'. The idea was to show the country that gay people are everywhere, in every industry, right next door to you, and to continue discriminatory practices against them is not only morally wrong, but also economically stupid.

Several cities have also organized after work rallies so that those people who couldn't afford to take a day off from work could also show their support for the movement.

I would be one of those unfortunate souls. Sadly, I had to take several sick days recently for actual illness, so literally cannot afford to not work today. But there are many other things that all of us can do to make sure the tide, which is decidedly turned with us, continues to go in the right direction.

First, as the lovable Gandhi once said, we must "be the change we want to see in the world." That means standing up for ourselves, our friends and relatives, and even complete strangers in the face of injustice. That means simply living our lives openly and honestly, being kind and fair even to those people who might not return the same favor. That means getting into politics, journalism, community organizing, and other such lines of work where we can affect the kinds of changes that lead to wider equality and justice for everyone.

Specific to journalism--at the moment, while there are plenty of hard-working, hard-hitting journalists out there in the world, the mainstream, more visible press is far too full of fluff and softball pitching. We shouldn't have to rely so much on comedy fake news programs to give it to us straight, and to ask the tough questions. Even so, I'm glad they do.

John Stewart gave us a Day Without A Gay present in his interview with Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is not a fan of the gay marriage. Stewart grilled him good, making several excellent points and pretty soundly rhetorically thrashing the guy, all without being nasty. Check it out:

I want this to go viral, as the points raised by Stewart are so excellent and so salient.

But back to this day without gays thing. The event has garnered an impressive amount of media attention (as has the new wave of gay activism that's sprung up since Prop 8--hey, a silver lining!), and I'm hopeful that this surge will only continue to grow in scope and influence.

There was concern from some corners that such an aggressive push for gay marriage rights would result in a backlash more damaging than what had come before, and that's understandable. Ultimately, however, just causes were never won through passivity. Sometimes, a situation is so grievously wrong that the only option is to stand up and shout, to demand justice, and not to back down until it's had.

And the final tactic? As the old saying goes, "a life well-lived is the best revenge." It's also the best education, and that, in the end, is our best weapon.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Well hello there, winter

A good ol' Oklahoma panhandle snow storm is blowing its way through Wisconsin today, dumping something like 6-10 inches on those of us in Madison and generally making a mess of the roads. Area school kids lucked out with a snow day, but most of us poor working fools still had to make the choice between making the trek to our various jobs or missing a days' pay.

Being the stubborn, hearty soul that I am, I opted for the 15-mile drive to work. It wasn't fun, but we made it (the decided lack of other cars on the road probably helped).

This is exactly what I suspected would play out when I went on a very pleasant walk last evening through the first, calmer part of the snow system. Since school snow days filled with sledding and hot chocolate are sadly a thing of the past for me now, I decided that it was a good chance to get out and enjoy myself before mundane responsibility set in the next morning. Camera and tripod in hand, I headed out into the neighborhood, passing a few people walking dogs lightly dusted with white, eventually making my way to Circle Park. I set up and took a few pictures near the powder covered merry-go-round, then strolled down to the lake and back.

Other than the ever-present distant rushing of cars out on the main roads, the only sounds were the falling snow, geese out for a paddle on a patch of still exposed water, and the occasional peal of laughter from two young girls who were building a stumpy little snowman nearby.

People's Christmas lights reflected everywhere, casting a warm glow across the accumulating snow, and here and there I caught a quick glimpse through a front window into a cozy living rooms and kitchens.

A good pair of boots, a warm jacket, gloves and hat, jeans, and my natural internal furnace kept me warm as I went - and I couldn't help but feel extremely grateful that I was so fortunate as to be able to really enjoy such a walk. And it was good for my mind, which I think has lately been a little more overloaded than usual with various issues of varying degrees of importance.

Sometimes a nice walk through the snow is all it takes to shake that off, though. What does it for you?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Inmates deserve better health care

We're all struggling for a better health care system (or any actual system, for that matter) in this country. To most folks, it seems strange that in a place as prosperous as America so many of its citizens lack even the most basic coverage.

So it may be difficult for some to find the time or the will to think about what things are like for those citizens who have landed in prison. Regardless of what they've done, though, these are human beings and therefor deserving of at least basic medical care.

Sadly, however, a combination of negligence and thinly-stretched resources have made for a pretty terrible situation for many inmates of Wisconsin's prison system.

Just two days ago, Bill Lueders at Isthmus reported on a call he'd received from the mother of an inmate being held in prison in La Crosse. She was desperate to get better medical care for her son, Robert Hawkins Jr., who was suffering from "severe stomach problems, high blood pressure, a chronic cough, and blood in his vomit and excrement" but was not getting proper medical attention from prison staff or doctors.

Lueders, being associated with a Madison publication, referred the stricken mother to the La Crosse Tribune, which did end up running a story about the issue. By that time, however, Hawkins had died. It had been two months since he'd first been incarcerated and had been exhibiting symptoms. Two months before prison staff saw fit to have him hospitalized.

And there are more examples of this sort of terrible scenario playing out in our prison system.

Curtis Heino was incarcerated at the Outagamie County Jail when he started to have breathing problems. His wife called to complain that whenever he'd gotten like that in the past, he'd come down with pneumonia. The jail's nurse brushed it all off:
"Nothing big going on with that guy at all," registered nurse Frank Koehler reassured the jail sergeant. "He's got the creeping crud like everybody else that's working in the jail has got. … He’ll survive."

Nineteen hours later, on Jan. 13, the 5-foot-8 Heino was found on the floor of his cell surrounded by bloody tissues and towels, according to jail officer reports obtained by The Post-Crescent through the state’s Public Records Law.
Still another incident involved a female inmate at the Taycheeda Correctional Institution.
Michelle Greer, 29, died within hours of pleading repeatedly with corrections officers for help with an acute asthma attack Feb. 2, 2000. She collapsed on the floor of a dining hall, where she died gasping for breath, still clutching her inhaler. She had told corrections officers multiple times that the inhaler was not helping her condition. Corrections officers had contacted Taycheedah health services twice on her behalf and were told by nurses that the situation was not an emergency because Greer could still talk.
And there are more stories - too many to list here. What's going on in our prisons may just be a reflection of a greater problem being faced by the nation. Our supposed health care system is in shambles, run by profit-driven institutions, unevenly distributed, and prohibitively expensive.

As far as I can tell, there are two big things at issue here: 1) Our prison systems are overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded, and 2) Our health care system is bloated and failing. The combination, for many, is lethal.

It doesn't have to be.

Pushing aside any arguments that prisoners don't deserve good medical treatment simply because they're prisoners (because that's just fucking wrong), we need to focus on fixing several problems. The United States has the highest number and percentage rate of incarceration in the world. That's one in 100 adults behind bars (more than 2.3 million), at a cost of nearly $50 billion a year for state governments and $5 billion more for the federal government. This is not an area where we should take pride in beating even countries like China.

Between the massive economic downturn and these sorts of numbers, it's no wonder that many prisons find themselves strapped for adequate cash and staffing, something that too often leads to the kinds of deadly scenarios described above.

Measures like killing the so-called War on Drugs, mandatory minumum sentancing laws, and other wasteful and/or discriminatory rules would held to ease the number of people behind bars. So would more spending on things like public education (argue all you like, people are less likely to turn to a life of crime if provided with better opportunities early on in life).

But some of this comes down to negligence, too, and we need to hold the responsible parties accountable for these peoples' deaths. We also need to make sure better training is provided for jail staff, so that the often clear-as-day warning signs don't go unheeded.

The most important thing is that these are almost all avoidable deaths, as we should be doing what we can to see that they are, in fact, avoided. No more phone calls from weeping mothers, please.

(photo by Gìpics on Flickr)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday Brunch: Sausages

Ah, Kids in the Hall. How I do miss serialized doses of your insane, delightfully Canadian brand of comedy. Well, barring DVD purchases, there's always Youtube to bring back some of my favorite sketches. This one is probably one of their most absurd, for sure, and has stuck with me ever since I first saw it so many years ago. I share it now with you all:

Friday, December 5, 2008

My own private Lord of the Flies

I'm going to tell you a story.

Sorry, I'm feeling a touch nostalgic.

It's the early 1990's, and we find ourselves in the midst of a newly booming suburb about 40 minutes west of Chicago. Everywhere, corn fields and streams are being bulldozed to make way for identical fairy rings of bland, Barbie Doll houses. This once quaint river town is quickly transforming, its outer reaches spreading like spilled water on porous paper with the construction of big box retailers and chain restaurants.

In the middle of one housing development, a band of adolescent children have begun to take advantage of the sudden proliferation of dirt hills, trenches, cast-off bits of wood, and rocks. Gleefully, they begin to build ramshackle forts and huts within these side effects of progress, using the battlefield-like terrain to wage petty wars of harmless fun against rival groups of kids.

Me and my two best friends--Alicia and Dave--were one such tribe. Only three in number, we still considered ourselves a force to be reckoned with. In the side yard of Dave's house, just across the street from where Alicia lived (I, the odd one out, lived some distance away in the church manse, a small house blessedly surrounded by trees instead of muddy fields), new houses had yet to go up, but space had been cleared for the purpose. This meant several large heaps of dirt and rocks, plus scattered pieces of wooden boards and pallets that practically screamed at us to be used as building materials.

We were powerless to resist. Spending countless summer hours outdoors, toiling in the dirt, we eventually built a fort in one such mound. It had an inner cave area, with ledges on top protected by packed dirt parapets. From it, we could keep an eye on the next nearest band of ruffians, who had dug into a dirt pile just two yards down.

From our fortified perches, we kept an eye on one another, wary that, should we leave our fort for any amount of time, our enemies would rush in and attempt to seize control. We stockpiled throwing-sized dirt clods, stick swords, a few small rocks, and--perhaps our most prized possessions--a mound of discarded, mutant-huge, rotting vegetables from a nearby garden. No joke, these turnips and such were gigantic and stinky, ie: perfect.

And so, when the assault finally came, we were ready--or so we thought. A handful of boys and one girl, all a few years younger than us but bold as barbarians, came charging down from their hill, intent on taking our fort.

Dirt clods and giant vegetables flew threw the air, accompanied by war cries and the occasional yelp of shock from being hit. We stood atop our ledges and lobbed with all our might, confident that we would prevail.

I was kneeling to pick up a particularly large and decomposing turnip when everything went south. Something obscenely hard and painful thumped into the back of my head and knocked me clean over. I tumbled down the back side of the mound. At the bottom, clutching the quickly forming lump, I bent over and picked up the offending projectile. A dirt clump with a huge rock clearly embedded in its side.

Oh, the line had been crossed.

The unspoken rule of the suburban battlefield was that no real pain was to be inflicted, no actual rocks thrown--only dirt and vegetables and insults. But there was no way my attacker hadn't noticed the stone lodged into his dirt bomb, I thought. I called dirty pool.

It wasn't the most tactically sound plan ever, but my temper took over. I ran out from behind the hill, empty-handed, looking for the offending kid. Most of them were distracted, busily trying to scramble up the dirt and toward my two friends, who had continued their defense in my absence. One of the older boys, though, was still standing at its foot, clearly looking for good pieces of dirt to throw. Jackpot.

I rushed him, shoving him sideways onto the ground before he knew what was happening. I could have punched him in the face, or kicked him in the groin, or any number of things to pay him back for the rock to the head.

Instead, at that very moment, one of their mother's started calling them in to dinner, and the atmosphere changed in an instant. Two of the attackers--siblings, apparently--turned tail and ran back toward their house, yelling something about it being pizza night. Alicia and Dave started chatting with the remaining kids about some upcoming street hockey game.

The distraction provided enough time for the kid I had tackled to push me off and scramble back to his feet.

"See you later!" he said and then trotted away. As my fugue state slowly subsided, I stood and brushed dirt from my clothes, still smarting from the knock I'd taken. But I was glad that things had gone as they had. I didn't really want to beat anyone up. The rock in the dirt was probably an accident, or just a poor but not malicious choice.

Whatever, the important thing was that we'd maintained control over the fort.

Three days later, bulldozers came and destroyed the dirt mounds and began laying the foundations of several new homes. We had to go further and further away to find dirt fields and mounds on which to play, until eventually the whole subdivision had been filled in by houses and small parks. Even the nearby stretch of woods, where we'd built a sprawling tree fort, was cut down to make way for more development.

Some of us turned to garage bands and elaborate scavenger hunts to pass the time. Others went for less wholesome activities, of course. Eventually we all moved away or drifted apart. But sometimes, even today, I still rub the back of my head and think about how silly we were, and yet, how terribly human. Mostly, though, I think, man, that kid was a total douchebag.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Get a light

I have a bad temper sometimes, but this is just ridiculous:

Two bicyclists came up behind O'Brien, with one saying they were going to pass him on the left. As they passed, O'Brien said, "Get a light."

Dunlavy apparently asked him to repeat himself so he did, with the couple then telling O'Brien to mind his own business. Dunlavy apparently then tried to run O'Brien off the road.

The pair followed O'Brien to his home, where the light talk continued.

The female said it appeared O'Brien had plenty of lights and asked for one, so he gave one to her, but Dunlavy still was upset and clamped his hands around O'Brien's head, according to a police report.

The report added that he twisted O'Brien to the ground and kicked him in the ribs, but Dunlavy denied doing so when he was arrested.

I admit that it's a little rude to just yell "get a light" at a fellow cyclist, but the sentiment is completely legitimate. Riding a bike in the dark is dangerous enough as it is, let alone if you're lacking some sort of illumination. It's hard for other cyclists to see you, as well as motorists. Seriously, it's really in your best interest to get a damn light (which aren't necessarily all that expensive) if you're going to ride at night, so I do understand where O'Brien was coming from.

Regardless of whether or not the statement was rude, there's absolutely no reason to then harass the guy for it, going so far as to follow him home and smack him around a little. Cripes, O'Brien even gave them a light for free.

But I guess some folks have anger management problems, or maybe just major insecurity at being called out in front of their girlfriends. Who knows.

Point is twofold: night riding requires a light, and really, we all need to chill the fuck out.

EDIT TO ADD: As always, Bike Snob NYC provides some humor on the situation.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Afghanistan, we (really) hardly knew ye

Have you ever read an article or story about a subject that really made you take a moment and think to yourself, "Damn, I don't know what I thought I knew about that"?

I recently came across just such an article. "How We Lost the War We Won: A journey into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan" by Nir Rosen turned out to be an incredible eye-opener for me.

An American reporter granted nearly unprecedented access to some of the most off-limits part of that country, Rosen relates a story of a far more nationalistic than fundamentalist resurgent Taliban--one even open to women in schools and jobs--and a situation that cannot be "won" through military means.

I urge you to read it. Go on, I'll wait.

A taste:
With the Bush administration focused on the war in Iraq, money poured into Afghanistan from Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists, who were eager to maintain a second front against the American invaders. The Taliban — once an isolated and impoverished group of religious students who knew little about the rest of the world and cared only about liberating their country from oppressive warlords — are now among the best-armed and most experienced insurgents in the world, linked to a global movement of jihadists that stretches from Pakistan and Iraq to Chechnya and the Philippines.
But this isn't a Bush bashing piece. Rosen gets down in the dirt and dust with the people of Afghanistan, literally risking his life to bring this story back to the rest of the world. And his main point seems to be that merely throwing more troops, more brawn at the problem is not going to fix much of anything.
"More troops are not the answer," a senior United Nations official in Kabul tells me. "You will not make more babies by having many guys screw the same woman." It is a point echoed in dozens of off-the-record interviews I conducted in Kabul with leading Western diplomats, security experts, former mujahedeen and Taliban commanders, and senior officials with the U.N. and prominent aid organizations. All agree that the situation is, in the words of one official, "incredibly bleak."


As one top official with a Western aid organization put it, "We're simply not up to the task of success in Afghanistan. I'm increasingly unsure about a way forward — except that we should start preparing our exit strategy."
The key line, and my inferred moral to Rosen's story, is this:
"This can't be solved other than by talking to the Taliban," says a top diplomat in Kabul. A leading aid official adds that it is important to understand the ideological goal of the Taliban: "They don't have an international-terrorist agenda — they have an Afghanistan agenda. We might not agree with their agenda for the country, but that's not our war."
It's a tough pill to swallow. I'm the polar opposite of a fan of any regime or ruling power that oppresses any of the people over whom it holds sway. I don't agree with conservative Islamic doctrine, or any doctrine, that subjugates women. But Afghanistan is not my country to rule. It is not anyone but Afghani's to rule.

The trick, of course, lies in making sure that Afghanis, all Afghanis, have an equal and unthreatened voice in those ruling decisions. Part of that does, I believe, require outside involvement, but much more in the form of international aid for infrastructure rebuilding, schools, security training, and know-how for a whole host of programs and problems. Not so much with the armies and weapons.

It was, after all, the US and Soviet Union that provided the region with much of its military training and armament. I would argue that it is then up to us to help them recover from all of that, but not by repeating past mistakes. Like the man said, you will not make more babies by having many guys screw the same woman.

Crass, but you get the point.

What's really interesting to see is how that country's government is now slowly flexing its independent muscle, perhaps emboldened by the prospect of the end of the Bush administration. Just today, the Karzai government made what's being called a "surprising reversal" and agreed to sign on, with 100 other countries, to a treaty banning the use of cluster bombs. The United States, it should be noted, has refused to sign the treaty and had been urging Afghanistan, one of the countries worst effected by the bombs, to follow suit.

Whether Karzai's move is purely political or not, it's impressive and important. Cluster bombs, much like modern nuclear weapons, are, in my opinion, completely unneccesarry tools of barbarous overkill. And the people they most hurt--regular Afghani citizens--are who we should all be listening to anyway.

What this all comes down to, I think, is the same moral of the story that we've learned (or were supposed to have learned) from Iraq. More often than not, the people who actually live in a place are the ones who best know what that place needs and how its people live. Even with the best of intentions, an outside power that swoops in and attempts to force change through violence is destined to wreak havoc and, usually, fail in its ultimate goals.

The US wanted to kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan as part of their larger effort to "contain the spread of communism". They succeeded at that, but in the long run provided training and weapons to people like Osama bin Laden, who would go on to return the favor by helping to kill thousands of people on 9/11.

The US wanted to prevent the Islamic Revolution happening in Iran from spreading into Iraq and other nearby countries, and so threw its support behind Iraq during the '80-'88 conflict. In so doing, they helped supply the regime of Saddam Hussein with many of the weapons and intelligence it would go on to use against our own forces.

We have to stop supporting dictators and regimes simply because it seems convenient to our country's own selfish goals at the time. It always comes back to haunt us in the long term, which is a tense we seem to have a difficult time thinking in. We also have a difficult time asking for help and advice from the people most likely to know what's really up: the locals. And we are far, far too quick to rush toward force and violence as means to our ends.

I thought I knew a thing or two about Afghanistan and the Taliban. But things, as they are wont to do, change or are not what they at first appeared to be--and we all need to work to keep our minds open and flexible to keep up with the times. We need to really listen to the Afghani people to find out what they want, and then stick to that plan. Sorry Mr. Obama, but "more troops" isn't going to win that war. Through arrogance and incompetence, we've already lost it. Now's the time for finding a way to lend a hand in securing a meaningful peace--and to give up the reins of power and control over anyone but ourselves.
The Lost Albatross