Saturday, December 23, 2006


A Holiday for Us All

New York Times
December 23, 2006

Christmas seems to bring out the worst in America's culture warriors. The Christian right continues its crusade against those waging "war against Christmas." Multiculturalists have nearly banished "Merry Christmas" and "Silent Night" from the public domain and are now going after outdoor Christmas trees. Atheist activists like Sam Harris are goaded into defending the outing of their Christmas trees with the argument that it's all secular anyway.

Harris is only partly right. The whole truth about Christmas is far more interesting and reveals why all can enjoy it. It is the perfect example of America's mainstream process, a national rite that dissolves the boundaries between sacred and secular, pagan and civilized, insiders and outsiders.

From the very beginning Christians have always had a tenuous hold on the holiday. The tradition of celebrating Jesus' birth on the 25th of December was invented in the fourth century in a proselytical move by the Church Fathers that was almost too clever. The pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations of the rebirth of the sun, especially the Roman Saturnalia and Iranian Mithraic festivals, were recast as the Christian doctrine of the re-birth of the Son of God. Like many such syntheses, it is often not clear who was culturally appropriating whom. Certainly, throughout the Middle Ages, Christmas festivities like the 12 days of saturnalian debauchery, the veneration of the holly and mistletoe, and the Feast of Fools were all continuities from pagan Europe.

For this reason, the Puritans abolished Christmas. As late as the 1860s, Christmas was still a regular work and school day in Massachusetts. By then, however, its reconstruction was well on the way in the rest of the nation. America drew on the many variants of Christmas brought over by immigrants. It is telling that, in the making of Santa Claus, it is the English Father Christmas, derived from the pagan Lord of Misrule, rather than the more Christian Dutch St. Nicholas that dominates.

The commercialization of the holiday began as early as the 1820s, and by the last quarter of the 19th century a thoroughly unique American complex had emerged — ornaments, Christmas trees and the wrapping of gift boxes. Christmas further evolved in the 20th century with department store displays, Santas and parades, the outdoor Christmas tree spectacle, postage cards and secular Christmas songs. All American ethnic groups contributed to this national ritual.

The re-Christianization of the holiday emerged in tandem with its commercialization during the 19th century. Secularists did not distort or steal Christmas from Christians: in America they made it together. What's more, as the cultural historian Karal Marling shows, the festival's most compassionate aspect, charity, came mainly from the influence of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," which, however, drew heavily on the largely invented accounts of a romanticized Merrie Olde England by the American travel writer Washington Irving.

The outcome of all this is a uniquely American national festival perfectly attuned to the demotic pulse of the common culture: its openness and vitality, its transcending appropriation of eclectic sources, its seductive materialism. It is, further, a mainstream process that dovetails exquisitely with more local expressions of America like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the former a reinvention of a minor Jewish rite, the latter a pure invention, in a manner similar to the wholly fictitious Scottish highland tradition that pipes up around the New Year. Kwanzaa borrowed heavily from Hanukkah, right down to the menorah, in fashioning the American art of mirroring the mainstream while doing one's own ethnic thing. Decorating public Christmas trees with menorahs should be a soothing natural development in this glorious hall of cultural mirrors.

Ejecting Christmas from the public domain makes little sense, and not simply because religion only partly contributed to its emergence as a national rite. It should be possible to enjoy Christmas while recognizing its muted Christian element, even though one is neither religious nor Christian, in much the same way one might enjoy the glories of a Botticelli or Fra Angelico in spite of the unrelenting Christian presence in their art. In much the same way, indeed, that one might enjoy jazz, another gift of the mainstream, without much caring for black culture; or the American English language that unites us, in spite of Anglo-Saxon roots that are as deep as those of Father Christmas.

Trump Fired Up

The New York Times
December 23, 2006

Donald Trump gives me an interview, though he has his doubts.

“I would like the interview to be in the Sunday paper,” he says.

He can’t be worried about his exposure, so it must be his boundless appetite for bigger/taller/glitzier that makes him yearn for the larger readership of Sunday.

“Me, too,” I reply. “But the only way that’s going to happen is if I give Frank Rich my notes and let him write the column.”

“I like Frank Rich,” he says, his voice brimming with appreciation for a man whose circulation is bigger than mine.

“Me, too,” I say.

Kurt Andersen, who jousted with the Donald as an editor at Spy, celebrates the “Daffy Duck” of deal-making in New York magazine this week as one of the “Reasons to Love New York,” calling him “our 21st century reincarnation of P. T. Barnum and Diamond Jim Brady, John Gotti minus the criminal organization, the only white New Yorker who lives as large as the blingiest, dissiest rapper — de trop personified.”

When I call De Trop Trump at Mar-a-Lago, he’s still ranting about “that big, fat slob Rosie O’Donnell.” When he granted Tara Conner, the naughty beauty queen, a second chance this week, Rosie made a crack on “The View” about an oft-married snake-oil salesman not being the best person to pass moral judgments. He slimed back, and the Great American Food Fight was on.

This past year was rife with mistakes — global mistakes, bigoted tirades, underwear mishaps. Winding up 2006, I asked the celebrity arbiter of who-can-stay and who-must-go about redemption.

In the case of Hollywood’s overexposed and underdressed young ladies of the night, Mr. Trump judiciously notes that in some cases, carousing is good for your career. His rule is, the more talented you are, the less you should mindlessly party. But if mindlessly partying is your talent, go for it.

“Britney,” he says, “doesn’t carry it off as well as Paris.”

How about those other international party girls, the Bush twins?

“When you’re a president who has destroyed the lives of probably a million people, our soldiers and Iraqis who are maimed and killed — you see children going into school in Baghdad with no arms and legs — I don’t think Bush’s kids should be having lots of fun in Argentina,” he says.

Should viewers give Katie Couric another look?

If you can’t get the ratings, he says, you’re cooked: “I like Katie, but she’s hit bottom and she’ll stay there. She made a terrible, tragic mistake for her career. She looks extremely unhappy on the show. I watched her the other night, and she’s not the same Katie.”

Can Gwyneth rebound from her comments comparing Americans unfavorably with Brits? “Gwyneth Paltrow is a good actress with average looks,” he says. “She likes to ride the high English horse. But when she puts down this country that gave her more than she should have had, it’s disgusting.”

Michael Richards and Judith Regan made irredeemable mistakes, in his view, as did Al Gore and John Kerry, when they couldn’t win winnable elections, and W., Cheney and Rummy, when they invaded Iraq.

“No matter how long we stay in Iraq, no matter how many soldiers we send, the day we leave, the meanest, most vicious, most brilliant man in the country, a man who makes Saddam Hussein look like a baby, will take over and spit on the American flag,” he says. “Bush will go down as the worst and by far the dumbest president in history.”

Colin Powell, he considers irredeemable as well: “He’s speaking up now, but he’s no longer relevant. I call him a pathetic and sad figure.”

He thinks John McCain has lost the 2008 election by pushing to send more troops to Iraq but that Hillary should be forgiven for her “horrendous” vote to authorize the war. “Don’t forget that decision was based on lies given to her,” he says. “She’s very smart and has a major chance to be our next president.”

He deems it “not a good sign” that Barack Obama got into a sketchy real estate deal with a sleazy Chicago political figure. “But he’s got some wonderful qualities,” Mr. Trump says, and deserves another chance.

And how about Monica Lewinsky, who just graduated from the London School of Economics? “It’s good she graduated,” he says. “She’s been through a lot.”

When it comes to having an opinion on everything, Trump towers.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Democrats and the Deficit

The New York Times
December 22, 2006

Now that the Democrats have regained some power, they have to decide what to do. One of the biggest questions is whether the party should return to Rubinomics — the doctrine, associated with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, that placed a very high priority on reducing the budget deficit.

The answer, I believe, is no. Mr. Rubin was one of the ablest Treasury secretaries in American history. But it’s now clear that while Rubinomics made sense in terms of pure economics, it failed to take account of the ugly realities of contemporary American politics.

And the lesson of the last six years is that the Democrats shouldn’t spend political capital trying to bring the deficit down. They should refrain from actions that make the deficit worse. But given a choice between cutting the deficit and spending more on good things like health care reform, they should choose the spending.

In a saner political environment, the economic logic behind Rubinomics would have been compelling. Basic fiscal principles tell us that the government should run budget deficits only when it faces unusually high expenses, mainly during wartime. In other periods it should try to run a surplus, paying down its debt.

Since the 1990s were an era of peace, prosperity and favorable demographics (the baby boomers were still in the work force, not collecting Social Security and Medicare), it should have been a good time to put the federal budget in the black. And under Mr. Rubin, the huge deficits of the Reagan-Bush years were transformed into an impressive surplus.

But the realities of American politics ensured that it was all for naught. The second President Bush quickly squandered the surplus on tax cuts that heavily favored the wealthy, then plunged the budget deep into deficit by cutting taxes on dividends and capital gains even as he took the country into a disastrous war. And you can even argue that Mr. Rubin’s surplus was a bad thing, because it greased the rails for Mr. Bush’s irresponsibility.

As Brad DeLong, a Berkeley economist who served in the Clinton administration, recently wrote on his influential blog: “Rubin and us spearcarriers moved heaven and earth to restore fiscal balance to the American government in order to raise the rate of economic growth. But what we turned out to have done, in the end, was to enable George W. Bush’s right-wing class war: his push for greater after-tax income inequality.”

My only quibble with Mr. DeLong’s characterization is that this wasn’t just one man’s class war: the whole conservative movement shared Mr. Bush’s squanderlust, his urge to run off with the money so carefully saved under Mr. Rubin’s leadership.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that conservatives who claimed to care about deficits when Democrats were in power never meant it. Let’s not forget how Alan Greenspan, who posed as the high priest of fiscal rectitude as long as Bill Clinton was in the White House, became an apologist for tax cuts — even in the face of budget deficits — once a Republican took up residence.

Now the Democrats are back in control of Congress. They’ve pledged not to be as irresponsible as their predecessors: Nancy Pelosi, the incoming House speaker, has promised to restore the “pay-as-you-go” rule that the Republicans tossed aside in the Bush years. This rule would basically prevent Congress from passing budgets that increase the deficit.

I’m for pay-as-you-go. The question, however, is whether to go further. Suppose the Democrats can free up some money by fixing the Medicare drug program, by ending the Iraq war and/or clamping down on war profiteering, or by rolling back some of the Bush tax cuts. Should they use the reclaimed revenue to reduce the deficit, or spend it on other things?

The answer, I now think, is to spend the money — while taking great care to ensure that it is spent well, not squandered — and let the deficit be. By spending money well, Democrats can both improve Americans’ lives and, more broadly, offer a demonstration of the benefits of good government. Deficit reduction, on the other hand, might just end up playing into the hands of the next irresponsible president.

In the long run, something will have to be done about the deficit. But given the state of our politics, now is not the time.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bush With Devil Horns Photo via AP

Rightwingers are crying foul over this AP photo of Bush with devil horns.

I don't get it.

If this image were found on a moldy cheese sandwich, many of the same rightwingers, who now criticize it, would instead take it as a direct sign from God.

So now God works through the Associated Press. What's so hard to understand about that?

[ Acknowledgements to Tennessee Guerilla Women . ]

Democrats Oppose Escalation of Troops

Democratic leaders have united in opposition to the Decider's go it alone idea of escalating the number of troops in Iraq. Republican leaders are generally silent on the unpopular idea.The madman in the Oval Office has indicated that "he will listen but not necessarily defer" to military leaders on the question of an escalation of troops - and deaths - in Iraq, cuz he's the Decider.


After initially indicating an openness to the "surge" idea (providing that "it's part of a program to get us out of there"), incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) issued a statement yesterday that he's no longer open: "I don't believe that more troops is the answer for Iraq."

The next Majority Whip, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) told reporters this past weekend that "sending more soldiers to Iraq after the holidays would further drain an already depleted military."

House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) issued a statement today rejecting the idea of a surge.

And House Majority Leader-elect Steny Hoyer (D-MD) earlier released a similar statement.

[ Acknowledgements to Tennessee Guerilla Women . ]


“You big fat lying lesbo commie whore! How dare you criticize my beautiful hairdo…?!”


“Yeah like you were ever gonna get elected President with that focking cheap toupee …! Ha!...HA!”

To Juan at the Winter Solstice

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether are learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison of all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin's silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right she crooks a finger smiling,
How may the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.

-- Robert Graves (1946)

America’s Open Wound

The New York Times
December 21, 2006

New Orleans

It’s eerie. The air is still. There is no noise. Night is falling.

The five stone steps in front of me once led to a porch, or maybe directly to the front door of a house. There is no way to be sure. The house is completely gone. All that’s left are the five steps, one of which is painted with the address, 1630 Reynes St. The steps sit alone, like a piece of minimalist art, at the front of a small vacant lot full of weeds and rubble. Next door is a house that is completely capsized, fallen over on its side like a sunken ship.

Welcome to the Lower Ninth Ward. You won’t find much holiday spirit here. In every direction, as far as it is possible to see, is devastation.

On another lot, piled high with the rubble of a ruined house, I saw a middle-aged man standing in the front yard weeping. He wore a dirty white baseball cap and he was sobbing like a child. I walked toward him to ask a question but he waved me away.

Whatever you’ve heard about New Orleans, the reality is much worse. Think of it as a vast open wound, this once-great American city that is still largely in ruins, with many of its people still writhing in agony more than a year after the catastrophic flood that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Enormous stretches of the city, mile after mile after mile, have been abandoned. The former residents have doubled-up or tripled-up with relatives, or found shelter in the ubiquitous white trailers of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or moved (in some cases permanently) to Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and beyond. Some have simply become homeless.

“This is a ghostly city, if you ask me,” said Sheila Etheridge, a waitress whose home was destroyed and whose three children are staying with relatives near Atlanta. “It gets real spooky when the sun goes down. They let me sleep in the back of the restaurant. But I’ll tell you the truth, we don’t have too many customers. You see what those neighborhoods are like. They’re empty. The people gone.”

The recovery in New Orleans has gone about as well as the war in Iraq.

In mid-September 2005, with parts of the city still submerged and soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division on patrol, President Bush made a dramatic, flood-lit appearance in historic Jackson Square. In a nationally televised speech he promised not only to do all that he could to rebuild the Gulf Coast, but also to confront the terrible problem of deep and persistent poverty.

“That poverty,” said the president, “has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.”

Now, more than a year later, the population of New Orleans is less than half what it was before the storm. The federal government has allocated billions for the city’s recovery but much of that money has been wasted or remains hopelessly tied up in the bureaucracy. Very little has gotten to the neediest victims, the people who were poor to begin with and then lost their homes and their livelihoods to the storm.

Many of the city’s hospitals and schools remain closed. Some will never reopen. There is very little public transportation. The politicians have come up with a stunning array of post-Katrina initiatives, but one grandiose recovery plan after another has faltered.

The terrible experience of the flood and its aftermath has left an imprint on the minds of most residents that’s as distinct as the water lines that stain so many of the city’s buildings. A cabdriver’s voice faltered as he told me about an obese woman who put pillows under her arms as the floodwaters were rising. She thought the pillows would help her float.

“She drowned,” the driver said.

Emotional and psychological problems are rampant, but there is a drastic shortage of mental health professionals to treat them. People are suffering from severe anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and other illnesses. Doctors told me that large numbers of mentally ill individuals have gone more than a year without taking their prescribed medication.

Many of the poor residents in the city feel that they’ve been abandoned by the government and the rest of America, and that the president broke his promise to help. “We’re in terrible trouble down here,” said a woman named Delores Goode, who stood outside the Superdome asking passers-by if they knew where she might find work as a baby sitter. “We were all over the television last year. Now we’re back to being nobody.”

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


"[I]f American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran," the letter reads. "I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped."

COMMENT: Fock you all! Leave the borders wide open. What we need are more Muslims, Mexicans , Mariolotrists & Secular Progressives to utterly destroy your goddamn stinking Crapitalist Crusader Confederate Connedserfaturd KKKultur…!!! Bring ‘em Owen…! Hoo-yeah!!! 23-Skidoo…!

Pentagon wants $99.7B more for wars

Associated Press Writer

The Pentagon wants the White House to seek an additional $99.7 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to information provided to The Associated Press.

The military's request, if embraced by President Bush and approved by Congress, would boost this year's budget for those wars to about $170 billion.

Military planners assembled the proposal at a time when Bush is developing new strategies for Iraq, such as sending thousands of more U.S. troops there, although it was put together before the president said the troop surge was under consideration.

Overall, the war in Iraq has cost about $350 billion. Combined with the conflict in Afghanistan and operations against terrorism elsewhere, the cost has topped $500 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The additional funds, if approved, would push this year's cost of the war in Iraq to about $50 billion over last year's record. In September, Congress approved an initial $70 billion for the current budget year, which began Oct. 1.

A description of the Pentagon request was provided by a person familiar with the proposal who asked for anonymity because the person was not authorized to release the information.

The cost of the war has risen dramatically as the security situation has deteriorated and more equipment is destroyed or worn out in harsh conditions. The Army, which has borne the brunt of the fighting, would receive about half of the request, a reflection of the wear and tear that the war has had on soldiers and their equipment.

An additional $9.8 billion is being sought for training and equipping Iraq's and Afghanistan's security forces.

The administration's request for more Iraq money will be submitted along with Bush's budget in February for the 2008 budget year, which starts next Oct. 1. The White House can add or subtract from the Pentagon request as it sees fit, and the total could grow if money is added for reconstruction costs.

In a memo several weeks ago, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England encouraged the services to include in their budget requests projects connected to the broader fight against terrorism, as opposed to costs strictly limited to Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics have said that could be interpreted to cover almost anything.

Earlier requests submitted by service branches to Pentagon brass were considerably higher, but were trimmed back after meeting resistance at the White House and from key lawmakers.
The budget request includes:

_$41.5 billion to cover the costs of ongoing military operations.
_$26.7 billion for replacing and repairing equipment damaged or destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
_$10 billion for body armor and other equipment to protect U.S. troops from attack.
_$2.5 billion to combat roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices.
_$2.7 billion for intelligence activities.

Whatever request emerges from the Bush administration will go to a new Congress controlled by Democrats highly critical of the Iraq war and Bush's handling of it.

Even so, there is much sentiment among Democrats to protect troops and much fear about being portrayed as unsympathetic to men and women in uniform. These factors probably would overwhelm any efforts by anti-war Democrats to use the debate over the Iraq money to take on Bush's conduct of the war.

Democrats have promised, however, to give the upcoming request greater scrutiny than Republicans did when considering Bush's previous requests.

"Democrats are committed to ensuring our troops have all that they need, but we're going to return oversight to spending on the war," said Jim Manley, spokesman for incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "Our troops must have everything they need, but Halliburton shouldn't get everything it wants."

Halliburton Co. is a Texas-based oil services conglomerate once led by Vice President Dick Cheney. Bush administration officials have come under fire since the beginning of the war in Iraq for awarding more than $10 billion to the company and its subsidiaries in 2003 and 2004, some of it in a no-bid contract. There have been allegations of fraud, poor work, overpricing and other abuse, which the company has denied.

Democrats such as incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota have grown increasingly critical of the fact that Iraq spending is kept on a set of books separate from the rest of government operations.

The Vietnam War cost an inflation-adjusted $121 billion at its height in 1968, according to the Congressional Research Service. The overall tally for Vietnam is $663 billion, adjusted for inflation, and Iraq costs are rapidly catching up.

Seeing Muhammad as Both a Prophet and a Politician


A Prophet for Our Time
By Karen Armstrong
249 pages. HarperCollins/Atlas Books. $21.95.

The religion with the most adherents on the planet is Christianity, and few people would say they are unfamiliar with the story of its founder and prophet, Jesus. The second largest faith is Islam, and yet there is boundless ignorance among non-Muslims about the story of its founder and prophet, Muhammad, even after 9/11 set off a global panic about whether Islam fuels terrorism.

Since then Muhammad has been defined by his detractors: who have called him a terrorist, a lunatic and most colorfully — by the Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the
Southern Baptist Convention — a “demon-possessed pedophile.” Even Pope Benedict XVI, whatever his intention, created an uproar by unearthing a remark from a 14th-century emperor who cited Muhammad’s contributions to religion as “only evil and inhuman.” Is this the prophet of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims?

It may be time then to put down the biographies of John Adams and
Ronald Reagan and devote a little attention to Muhammad. But beware. Several new biographies picture Muhammad through the lens of a suicide bomber, and ultimately these books reveal more about suicide bombers than Muhammad.

To glimpse how the vast majority of the world’s Muslims understand their prophet and their faith, Karen Armstrong’s short biography is a good place to start. The volume is part of a series called “Eminent Lives”: small profiles of big-name subjects by big-name authors.

Ms. Armstrong, best known for “A History of God,” is a scholar and a former nun with a genius for presenting religions as products of temporal forces — like geography, culture and economics — without minimizing the workings of transcendent spiritual forces.

She profiles Muhammad as both a mystic touched by God on a mountaintop and a canny political and social reformer. He preached loyalty to God rather than tribe; reconciliation rather than retaliation; care for orphans and the poor; and in many ways, empowerment of women, which will be a surprise to some. The Koran gave women property rights and freed orphans from the obligation to marry their guardians: radical changes at a time when women were traded like camels.

Ms. Armstrong writes: “His life was a tireless campaign against greed, injustice and arrogance. He realized that Arabia was at a turning point and that the old way of thinking would no longer suffice, so he wore himself out in the creative effort to evolve an entirely new solution.” In a nod to her subtitle, “A Prophet for Our Time,” she argues that as of Sept. 11, 2001, we have entered a new historical era that requires an equally thorough re-evaluation.

This notion that we have entered a new era was one of the reasons that Ms. Armstrong decided to revisit a subject she had already covered in 1992 with “Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.”

Muhammad (570-632) was born in a nouveau riche Mecca. Unlike most Arabs, the Meccans were not nomads but traders and financiers who profited from the caravans that stopped in Mecca for water from its underground spring. The site was holy to the Bedouin because it housed the Kabah, a cube-shaped granite building that was tended by Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh.

Muhammad was orphaned as a child and taken in by relatives, but his fortunes changed at the age of 25 when he married Khadija, an older widow who hired him to manage her caravans. At 40 Muhammad declared he had been seized by a terrifying force and commanded by God to recite scripture.

Khadija was his first convert. At first he shared his revelations with a small group of friends and family members, who became his disciples, “convinced that he was the long-awaited Arab prophet.” As Muhammad, who was illiterate, recited new passages, believers wrote them down: a compilation that became the Koran.

The Meccans were offended by Muhammad’s preaching that the ideal was submission. (Islam means submission.) He taught that the proper way to pray was to bow, forehead to the earth, “a posture that would be repugnant to the haughty Quraysh,” Ms. Armstrong notes. Muhammad also insisted that the Meccans abandon the worship of their three stone goddesses, because there was only one God, Allah.

Muhammad and his followers were exiled to Medina, 250 miles north of Mecca. He did not conquer Medina so much as form alliances and win converts. But there were epic battles with the Quraysh and other tribes, and Muhammad was a fighter and tactician.

“Muhammad was not a pacifist,” Ms. Armstrong writes. “He believed that warfare was sometimes inevitable and even necessary.”

This is why some passages in the Koran are rules for warfare. Terrorist groups cite these selectively — or contort or violate them. The Koran says not to take aim at civilians; some terrorist groups declare all Israelis to be combatants because Israelis are required to perform military service.

Ms. Armstrong declines to stand in judgment of events that have scandalized other biographers; as when Muhammad falls for the wife of his adopted adult son and takes her as his fifth wife. Ms. Armstrong writes: “This story has shocked some of Muhammad’s Western critics who are used to more ascetic, Christian heroes, but the Muslim sources seem to find nothing untoward in this demonstration of their prophet’s virility. Nor are they disturbed that Muhammad had more than four wives: why should God not give his prophet a few privileges?”

Muhammad ultimately took back Mecca and reclaimed the Kabah, still the destination for the Muslim pilgrimage.

Ms. Armstrong argues that he prevailed by compassion, wisdom and steadfast submission to God. This is the power of his story and the reason that more parents around the world name their children Muhammad than any other name.

from the O(peration) I(raqi) L(iberty) files

Pentagon report paints grim picture for US in Iraq

By Patrick Martin
20 December 2006

A report issued by the Pentagon Monday confirms the disastrous state of the American project for the conquest of Iraq and transformation of the oil-rich country into a semi-colony of the United States.

The armed resistance to the US occupation continues to swell, with both insurgent attacks on US forces and American casualties growing at a double-digit rate. According to the quarterly report, mandated by Congress, the number of attacks carried out by insurgents has risen by 22 percent over the past three months, while US casualties have risen 32 percent.

More than two thirds of the attacks are directed against American soldiers and Iraqi soldiers and police. The remaining one third of the attacks target Iraqi civilians. Thus, despite the efforts by the Bush administration and the media to portray the violence as largely internecine sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shia, the bulk of the armed actions have been directed against the occupation forces and their Iraqi underlings.

The number of attacks has doubled over the past year, belying all of the Bush administration’s claims of progress towards establishing a stable occupation regime. The rate of armed attacks rose from 463 a week during the six months from February to August 2005 to 959 a week during the four months from August to November of this year. US casualties are being recorded at the rate of 25 soldiers a day killed or wounded, with an even higher rate, 33 casualties a day, among Iraqi soldiers and policemen.

Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, director of strategic plans and policy for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed the press on the report. “The violence has escalated at an unbelievably rapid pace,” he said. Pentagon officials told the press that insurgents had achieved “partial strategic success” by splitting the US-established government in Baghdad along sectarian lines and undermining its viability.

While the report suggested that the US forces were meeting their goal in the number of Iraqi soldiers and policemen given rudimentary military training, reaching a total of 325,000, some 45,000 of these have already been killed, wounded or gone missing, while as many as 50 percent would desert if deployed outside their home areas, according to US estimates.

Crisis in the Pentagon

The nearly four-year US occupation of Iraq has been a catastrophe for the Iraqi people, who face social and economic conditions far worse than those which prevailed under Saddam Hussein, and a level of mass killing that outstrips the bloodiest years of the Baathist regime.

The war has also had a profound impact on the American military, as testimony by Pentagon officials last week emphasized. Lt. Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told a congressional panel December 14 that the stresses of the long-term deployment of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with restrictions on the use of Reserve and National Guard troops, was having a devastating effect on military readiness.

“The Army is incapable of generating and sustaining the required forces to wage the global war on terror,” Schoomaker said, “without its components—active, Guard and reserve—surging together.” There were not enough active-duty soldiers to meet the requirements of continual deployments, he said, since current Pentagon policy bars second deployments for members of the reserves and National Guard, except on a volunteer basis. “At this pace, without recurrent access to the reserve components, through remobilization, we will break the active component,” the general said.

The Bush administration imposed the informal ban on second deployments—which goes beyond current legal requirements—because of concerns over the political fallout from increased casualties among Guard and Reserve soldiers, who tend to be older, married and with children. These forces were heavily used in the first three years of the war, to the point that only 90,000 of the 522,000 Guard and Reserve soldiers are eligible for mobilization to the war zones.

According to an Army summary distributed to the press, reserve forces now must be cobbled together from soldiers in many different units, drawing an average of 62 percent of their strength from such recruitment, compared to only 6 percent in 2002. In one transportation company, only seven of 170 soldiers were eligible to deploy, and the others came from 65 other units in 49 locations. “Military necessity dictates that we deploy organized, trained, equipped cohesive units,” Schoomaker said, “and you don’t do that by pick-up teams.”

Such considerations underlie the resistance of the Pentagon brass to the White House’s preferred initiative: a “surge” of 20,000 to 30,000 additional combat troops, who would be dispatched to Baghdad and Anbar Province, center of the Sunni armed resistance, to conduct a military blitz against the local populations.

According to a report Tuesday in the Washington Post, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have expressed unanimous opposition to the “surge” proposal, on the grounds that its long-term consequences have not been thought through, particularly the impact it will have in inflaming the Iraqi resistance in both Sunni and Shiite areas.

There is also grave concern among the top officers of the impact on morale among the troops, since the most ambitious “surge” proposals—reportedly favored by Vice President Cheney—would require redeploying troops currently scheduled to go home from Iraq and sending them back into combat instead.

Such views were voiced most clearly by Bush’s former secretary of state, Colin Powell, who was also the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the administration of the senior Bush, in which capacity he oversaw military operations in the first US war against Iraq. In an appearance on the CBS program “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Powell declared his opposition to any short-term increase in US military forces in Iraq.

“Before I would add any additional troops or recommend it to a commander in chief, I’d want to make sure we have a clear understanding of what it is they’re going for, how long they’re going for,” he said.

The push for more troops

Bush, Cheney and their closest aides refuse to acknowledge the scale of the debacle in Iraq and have declared themselves irrevocably committed to an American military victory. Bush’s newly appointed secretary of defense, former CIA director Robert Gates, reiterated this position in his remarks Monday, as he took over control of the Pentagon from Donald Rumsfeld.

“Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility, and endanger Americans for decades to come,” he declared as he was sworn in by Vice President Cheney, with the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, in attendance as well. Levin, along with the rest of the Democrats in the Senate, voted to confirm Gates as the new Pentagon chief. He told the Washington Post that Gates “will be much more open to oversight” by Congress than Rumsfeld was.

There are no congressional Democratic leaders who would disagree with Gates’s declaration that defeat in Iraq would be a disaster for American imperialism with global repercussions. That is why, despite the powerful antiwar sentiments expressed by a majority of voters in the November 7 election, the new Democratic majority in Congress is committed to continuing the war.

The conflicts within the ruling elite revolve around how to salvage as much as possible from the debacle in Iraq, but all factions endorse the fundamental goals of the Bush administration’s policy, which are to seize control of the oil resources of Iraq and use that country’s territory as a strategic base for projecting American power throughout the Middle East.

This bipartisan agreement was underscored in a commentary published in the Wall Street Journal Monday, co-authored by Senator Hillary Clinton, the early frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, and Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada. The two senators called for quick action by the Iraqi government to create an “Iraq Oil Trust” that would issue shares of stock to every Iraqi citizen.

This plan would open the way to the privatization of the oil industry. Such schemes have been employed in other countries as a transition to selling off state-run industries to corporate investors who buy up the individual shares, preying on the economic desperation of a population largely without jobs and facing destitution.

Clinton has also introduced a bill called the United States Army Relief Act that calls for an increase in the size of the Army by 80,000 troops over the next four years. Her co-sponsors include Democratic senators Jack Reed, Joseph Lieberman and Bill Nelson. Under Rumsfeld, the Pentagon regularly rebuffed such proposals by the Democrats, but on Tuesday Bush said he was now willing to support increases in the authorized strength of both the Army and the Marine Corps.

Flunking Our Future

The New York Times
December 20, 2006


The only sects that may be more savage than Shiites and Sunnis are the Democratic feminist lawmakers representing Northern and Southern California.

After Nancy Pelosi and Jane Harman had their final catfight about who would lead the House Intelligence Committee, aptly enough at the Four Seasons’ hair salon in Georgetown, the new speaker passed over the knowledgeable and camera-eager Ms. Harman and mystifyingly gave the consequential job to Silvestre Reyes of Texas.

Mr. Reyes promptly tripped over the most critical theme in the field of intelligence. Jeff Stein, interviewing the incoming chairman for Congressional Quarterly, asked him whether Al Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” the lawmaker guessed.

As Mr. Stein corrected him in the article: “Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an Al Qaeda clubhouse, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.”

Mr. Stein followed up with a Hezbollah question: “What are they?” Again, Mr. Reyes was stumped.

“Hezbollah,” he stammered. “Uh, Hezbollah. Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o’clock? Can I answer in Spanish?” (O.K. ¿Que es Hezbollah?)

Sounding as naked of essentials as Britney Spears, the new intelligence oversight chief pleaded that it was hard to keep all the categories straight. Thank heavens Mr. Stein never got to Syrian Alawites.

Many Americans, including those in charge of Middle East policy, are befuddled and fed up with the intransigent tribal and religious fevers of the region. As Bill O’Reilly sagely remarked, “I don’t want to ever hear Shia and Sunni again.” But it is beyond the job description of top officials to wish the problems away, especially when the entire region is decomposing before our bleary eyes.

If Mr. Reyes had been reading the newspaper, he might have noticed Mr. Stein’s piece on The Times’s Op-Ed page two months earlier, in which, like a wonkish Ali G, he caught many intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as members of Congress, who did not know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite.

“Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting,” he concluded. “And that’s enough to keep anybody up at night.”

The lack of intellectual urgency about our Middle East wars is chilling. The Iraq Study Group reported that our efforts in Iraq are handicapped by the fact that our embassy of 1,000 has only 33 Arabic speakers, just six who are fluent.

W., of course, failed a foreign affairs pop quiz and still became a close ally of the Pakistani dictator he referred to as “General … General.”

Once they have the job, the incentive of politicians to study is somewhat dulled. Charles Z. Wick, who headed the U.S. Information Agency during the Reagan years, sent a memo to his staff saying that he and the president needed to know if France was a member of NATO. Mr. Reagan had already been the president for years, The Times’s Steve Weisman reported, when he expressed surprise at learning that the Soviets had most of their nuclear weapons on land-based missiles, while America had relatively few.

One possibility is that Mr. Stein’s questions were just too darn hard. He should have pitched a few warm-ups, like: How many sides are there in the Sunni Triangle? Or: Which religious figure, Muhammad or Jesus, has not been the subject of a Mel Gibson film?

Perhaps the questions could be phrased Jeopardy-style, as in: “The name shared by two kings in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.” (What is Abdullah?)

A multiple choice might be easier on harried policy makers. For instance, which of the following quotes can be attributed to Dick Cheney?

a) “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people: greedy, barbarous and cruel.”

b) “Don Rumsfeld is the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had.”

c) “Certain things are not known to those who eat with forks.”

Or this: Is the Shiite crescent a) a puffy dinner roll, b) a new Ramadan moon, or c) an arc of crisis?

Once our leaders get a grasp of the basics, we can hit them with a truly hard question: Three and a half years after the invasion of Iraq, with nearly 3,000 American troops dead and the Iraqis not remotely interested in order or democracy, what on earth do we do now?

Mideast Rules to Live by

The New York Times
December 20, 2006

For a long time, I let my hopes for a decent outcome in Iraq triumph over what I had learned reporting from Lebanon during its civil war. Those hopes vanished last summer. So, I’d like to offer President Bush my updated rules of Middle East reporting, which also apply to diplomacy, in hopes they’ll help him figure out what to do next in Iraq.

Rule 1: What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language. Anything said to you in English, in private, doesn’t count. In Washington, officials lie in public and tell the truth off the record. In the Mideast, officials say what they really believe in public and tell you what you want to hear in private.

Rule 2: Any reporter or U.S. Army officer wanting to serve in Iraq should have to take a test, consisting of one question: “Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?” If you answer yes, you can’t go to Iraq. You can serve in Japan, Korea or Germany — not Iraq.

Rule 3: If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all — they won’t believe it.

Rule 4: In the Middle East, never take a concession, except out of the mouth of the person doing the conceding. If I had a dollar for every time someone agreed to recognize Israel on behalf of Yasir Arafat, I could paper my walls.

Rule 5: Never lead your story out of Lebanon, Gaza or Iraq with a cease-fire; it will always be over before the next morning’s paper.

Rule 6: In the Middle East, the extremists go all the way, and the moderates tend to just go away.

Rule 7: The most oft-used expression by moderate Arab pols is: “We were just about to stand up to the bad guys when you stupid Americans did that stupid thing. Had you stupid Americans not done that stupid thing, we would have stood up, but now it’s too late. It’s all your fault for being so stupid.”

Rule 8: Civil wars in the Arab world are rarely about ideas — like liberalism vs. communism. They are about which tribe gets to rule. So, yes, Iraq is having a civil war as we once did. But there is no Abe Lincoln in this war. It’s the South vs. the South.

Rule 9: In Middle East tribal politics there is rarely a happy medium. When one side is weak, it will tell you, “I’m weak, how can I compromise?” And when it’s strong, it will tell you, “I’m strong, why should I compromise?”

Rule 10: Mideast civil wars end in one of three ways: a) like the U.S. civil war, with one side vanquishing the other; b) like the Cyprus civil war, with a hard partition and a wall dividing the parties; or c) like the Lebanon civil war, with a soft partition under an iron fist (Syria) that keeps everyone in line. Saddam used to be the iron fist in Iraq. Now it is us. If we don’t want to play that role, Iraq’s civil war will end with A or B.

Rule 11: The most underestimated emotion in Arab politics is humiliation. The Israeli-Arab conflict, for instance, is not just about borders. Israel’s mere existence is a daily humiliation to Muslims, who can’t understand how, if they have the superior religion, Israel can be so powerful. Al Jazeera’s editor, Ahmed Sheikh, said it best when he recently told the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche: “It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about seven million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West’s problem is that it does not understand this.”

Rule 12: Thus, the Israelis will always win, and the Palestinians will always make sure they never enjoy it. Everything else is just commentary.

Rule 13: Our first priority is democracy, but the Arabs’ first priority is “justice.” The oft-warring Arab tribes are all wounded souls, who really have been hurt by colonial powers, by Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, by Arab kings and dictators, and, most of all, by each other in endless tribal wars. For Iraq’s long-abused Shiite majority, democracy is first and foremost a vehicle to get justice. Ditto the Kurds. For the minority Sunnis, democracy in Iraq is a vehicle of injustice. For us, democracy is all about protecting minority rights. For them, democracy is first about consolidating majority rights and getting justice.

Rule 14: The Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi had it right: “Great powers should never get involved in the politics of small tribes.”

Rule 15: Whether it is Arab-Israeli peace or democracy in Iraq, you can’t want it more than they do.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Only the Jailers Are Safe

New York Times Editorial
December 20, 2006

Ever since the world learned of the lawless state of American military prisons in Iraq, the administration has hidden behind the claim that only a few bad apples were brutalizing prisoners. President Bush also has dodged the full force of public outrage because the victims were foreigners, mostly Muslims, captured in what he has painted as a war against Islamic terrorists bent on destroying America.

This week, The Times published two articles that reminded us again that the American military prisons are profoundly and systemically broken and that no one is safe from the summary judgment and harsh treatment institutionalized by the White House and the Pentagon after 9/11.

On Monday, Michael Moss wrote about a U.S. contractor who was swept up in a military raid and dumped into a system where everyone is presumed guilty and denied any chance to prove otherwise.

Donald Vance, a 29-year-old Navy veteran from Chicago, was a whistle-blower who prompted the raid by tipping off the F.B.I. to suspicious activity at the company where he worked, including possible weapons trafficking. He was arrested and held for 97 days — shackled and blindfolded, prevented from sleeping by blaring music and round-the-clock lights. In other words, he was subjected to the same mistreatment that thousands of non-Americans have been subjected to since the 2003 invasion.

Even after the military learned who Mr. Vance was, they continued to hold him in these abusive conditions for weeks more. He was not allowed to defend himself at the Potemkin hearing held to justify his detention. And that was special treatment. As an American citizen, he was at least allowed to attend his hearing. An Iraqi, or an Afghani, or any other foreigner, would have been barred from the room.

This is not the handiwork of a few out-of-control sadists at Abu Ghraib. This is a system that was created and operated outside American law and American standards of decency. Except for the few low-ranking soldiers periodically punished for abusing prisoners, it is a system without any accountability.

Yesterday, David Johnston reported that nearly 20 cases in which civilian contractors were accused of abusing detainees have been sent to the Justice Department. So far, the record is perfect: not a single indictment.

Administration officials said that prosecutors were hobbled by a lack of evidence and witnesses, or that the military’s cases were simply shoddy. This sounds like another excuse from an administration that has papered over prisoner abuse and denied there is any connection between Mr. Bush’s decision to flout the Geneva Conventions and the repeated cases of abuse and torture. We hope the new Congress will be more aggressive on this issue than the last one, which was more bent on preserving the Republican majority than preserving American values and rights. The lawless nature of Mr. Bush’s war on terror has already cost the nation dearly in terms of global prestige, while increasing the risks facing every American serving in the military.



On Fox News Sunday, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol misrepresented Sen. Ted Kennedy's "current position" on Iraq as a plan to "continue to pursue a strategy which has not been winning." In fact, Kennedy was one of only 13 senators who voted to withdraw troops from Iraq by July 2007. [ MORE ]


New rules would ban gifts, meals from lobbyists

By Jackie Kucinich
The Hill

Democratic leaders are proposing new House rules that prohibit members from accepting gifts or meals from lobbyists and place new restrictions on trips paid for by outside groups.

The proposed rules are listed in a draft document that was briefed to members during a conference call today and later obtained by The Hill.

The rules would ban lobbyists "or organizations that employ them from planning, organizing, requesting, arranging or participating in travel for members or staff," according to the document. The new rules do make an allowance for a one-day trip to attend a forum, participate in a panel or give a speech.


COMMENT: Gifts & meals are bribes graft sh!t p!ss & corruption--NOT FREE SPEECH, INJUSTICE SCALIA! You stinking little weasel !!!

A U.S. Fortress Rises in Baghdad: Asian Workers Trafficked to Build World's Largest Embassy

by David Phinney
Special to CorpWatch
October 17th, 2006

John Owen didn’t realize how different his job would be from his last 27 years in construction until he signed on with First Kuwaiti Trading & Contracting in November 2005. Working as general foreman, he would be overseeing an army of workers building the largest, most expensive and heavily fortified US embassy in the world. Scheduled to open in 2007, the sprawling complex near the Tigris River will equal Vatican City in size.

Then seven months into the job, he quit.

Not one of the five different US embassy sites he had worked on around the world compared to the mess he describes. Armenia, Bulgaria, Angola, Cameroon and Cambodia all had their share of dictators, violence and economic disruption, but the companies building the embassies were always fair and professional, he says. The Kuwait-based company building the $592-million Baghdad project is the exception. Brutal and inhumane, he says “I’ve never seen a project more fucked up. Every US labor law was broken.”

In the resignation letter last June, Owen told First Kuwaiti and US State Department officials that his managers beat their construction workers, demonstrated little regard for worker safety, and routinely breached security. [MORE]


Monday, December 18, 2006

When Prudishness Costs Lives

The New York Times
December 19, 2006

POIPET, Cambodia

This is an impoverished, authoritarian, war-ravaged country, but it offers an important lesson for President Bush and American school boards: Don’t fear those lifesaving bits of latex known as condoms.

Cambodia has become one of the world’s few success stories in the struggle against AIDS, and it has achieved that success partly by vigorously promoting condoms. This strategy has saved thousands of lives.

Cambodia has cut the prevalence of H.I.V. in adults from 3 percent in 1997 to about 1.8 percent today. In rural Cambodian towns like this one, billboards and posters promote condoms, and clinics and brothels have buckets of them. Health centers don’t have X-ray machines or oxygen tanks, but they have phalluses to show visitors how to put on condoms.

Here in Poipet, I met a 27-year-old woman with AIDS, Tem Phok. She had been a prostitute in a brothel, so I assumed that that was how she contracted AIDS. “Oh, no,” she said. “I got AIDS later, from my husband,” who has already died.

“In the brothel, I always used condoms,” she said. “But when I was married, I didn’t use a condom. … A woman with a husband is in much more danger than a girl in a brothel.”

That’s an exaggeration, but she has a point: It doesn’t do much good for American officials to preach abstinence and fidelity in places where the big risk of contracting H.I.V. comes with marriage. In countries with a high prevalence of AIDS, just about the most dangerous thing a woman can do is to marry.

Mr. Bush’s AIDS program, which has greatly increased spending over the levels in the Clinton years, is the single best thing he has done, and is projected to save some nine million lives around the world. That’s a genuine and historic achievement.

But the Bush program has also been undermined by a resistance to condoms. The administration has taken information about condoms off government Web sites, and its AIDS prevention efforts abroad, when aimed at young people, have emphasized abstinence to the exclusion of condoms.

Likewise, in much of the U.S., social conservatives with administration backing have instituted “abstinence only” sex education, so that teens are encouraged to take “virginity pledges” but aren’t given a backup plan.

Careful studies of “abstinence only” programs in the U.S. suggest that they do delay sexual intercourse, but that young people are then less likely to use condoms afterward. The evidence indicates that a balanced approach — encouraging abstinence but also promoting condoms — is far more effective at protecting young people in America or abroad from sexually transmitted infections, including H.I.V.

In the past, social conservatives routinely cited Uganda as proof that it’s best to focus just on abstinence. It’s true that Uganda cut H.I.V. rates significantly, partly by promoting abstinence and fidelity — but also by promoting condoms. More recently, Uganda has been backing away from condoms, with U.S. support, and its H.I.V. prevalence is rising again.

Despite the hostility to condoms in Washington (and at the Vatican), in the field, even conservative missionaries tend to endorse them.

“Why should we be afraid of latex, when we see that it can save lives,” a Catholic nun in Cameroon told me, adding that her clinic hands out large numbers of condoms. She explained: “I just don’t mention that in my reports to the bishop.”

For all the fears that condoms lead to promiscuity, the opposite has been true in Cambodia. Growing condom use has been accompanied by a drop in casual sex (probably because of increased nervousness about AIDS).

Abroad, Washington’s prudishness about condoms is routinely undermined by pragmatic officials, so that at the grass roots in Africa condoms are encouraged much more than Washington probably would like. But that same pragmatism hasn’t reached American schools, particularly in the South.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, which conducts research on reproductive health, the proportion of American adolescents receiving formal instruction in birth control methods has tumbled since the mid-1990s.

One study found that among sexually experienced American adolescents, only 62 percent of girls and 54 percent of boys had been instructed in birth control methods at the time of their first sexual intercourse.

The upshot is that we do a better job using our tax dollars to protect the health and lives of Cambodian prostitutes than we do protecting school kids in Texas.

Wall Street awards itself billions in Christmas bonuses

By David Walsh
19 December 2006

Wall Street is awarding itself tens of billions in bonuses this winter. The fantastic amounts of money being handed out to investment bankers, securities traders and the like is symptomatic of the vast social divide that blights every aspect of American life.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs is leading the pack. The firm reported an increase in quarterly earnings of 93 percent and will distribute some $16.5 billion in bonuses to dozens of its bankers and traders. The top “rainmakers,” as they are called, will each take home as much as $20 to $25 million just in bonuses, “while traders who booked big profits will take home a chunk of those profits, up to $50 million apiece,” according to a December 13 article in the New York Times. The report cited the comment of one New York-based investment firm, “Anyone at the bonus line at Goldman Sachs died and went to bonus heaven. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Another piece on the December 3 financial page of the Times suggested that bonuses are “expected to be a cash pile of more than $100 billion across the Street this year.” That estimate presumably includes companies of all sizes. Last year major investment banks and trading firms handed out $21.5 billion in year-end bonuses. Options Group, a New York executive search firm, predicted 2006 bonuses would rise 15 to 20 percent.

The staggering figure of $100 billion in total bonuses is more than twice the annual budget of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and nearly twice the US Department of Education budget. Washington spends $20 billion annually on foreign aid to the entire world. The yearly budget of the City of New York, which employs 250,000 people, amounts to $50 billion.

The $16.5 billion in bonuses at Goldman Sachs alone is more than New York City pays to educate 1.1 million children in its schools, the largest local school budget in the US. Goldman Sachs is giving out more in year-end financial rewards than the federal government spends on the nation’s largest low-income housing program, the Housing Choice Voucher Program ($15.9 billion), which covers some 2 million households.

Goldman Sachs’ top employees are not alone. Investment bank Morgan Stanley awarded its chief executive, John Mack, $40 million in stock and options for 2006, according to a regulatory filing on December 14. When Mack rejoined Morgan Stanley in June 2005 (he was ousted as president of the bank in 2001), he received a new-hire award of 500,000 restricted stock units, valued at $26.2 million. In February 2006, Morgan Stanley announced that it had awarded Mack $13 million in cash, stock and other compensation for his first five months on the job. Aside from his salary, therefore, Mack has received compensation worth nearly $80 million in 18 months at Morgan Stanley.

Mack’s $40 million bonus, however, is expected to be eclipsed by the amount eventually handed out to Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. His 2006 bonus will probably top $50 million, according to analysts. Other executives in the $40-$50 million category include James Cayne of Bear Stearns, Stan O’Neal of Merrill Lynch and Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers, notes the Wall Street Journal.

Much of the bonus money is paid out for those involved in massive mergers and acquisitions. The New York Times revealed a dirty little secret of corporate mergers: There is “a torrent of multibillion [dollar] takeovers and mergers at the end of every year” to influence bonuses “for all involved in the deal, especially the bankers.” The newspaper added, “Corporate America’s biggest cheerleaders and boosters need to get paid.”

Bankers at Goldman Sachs and the other firms receive bonus money for a deal announced this year, and receive another reward when the deal closes next year. Even if the merger eventually fails to come about, the bankers keep their bonus money.

The nature of Goldman Sachs’ activities underscores the parasitic character of modern-day American capitalism. According to the Times, the investment bank has “transformed its business to capitalize on sea changes in the capital markets, particularly new opportunities in far-flung markets and a shift from issuing and trading plain-vanilla stocks and bonds to building and trading complex derivative products.”

Two episodes demonstrate how Goldman Sachs makes some of its billions. In the second quarter of 2006, it spent $2.6 billion for a 5 percent stake in the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, the largest state-owned bank in that country. When the latter went public in October, Goldman Sachs reaped a windfall. For the fourth quarter, it made nearly $1 billion on the investment.

Goldman Sachs earned a further half a billion dollars on the sale of Accordia Golf, a portfolio of Japanese golf courses it began to acquire in 2001. This is a far cry from the manufacturing operations of a Henry Ford or an Andrew Carnegie.

Goldman Sachs is a particularly well-connected financial institution. The present US treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, is a former chairman and CEO. His three immediate predecessors were Jon Corzine, former US senator (and present governor of New Jersey), Stephen Friedman, who became chairman of the National Economic Council (and later chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, in which capacity he still works) and Robert Rubin, who served as Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration.

The billions in bonuses will have a material impact, in the first place, on New York City, further widening the social gap. Financial industry employees collect more than 50 percent of the wages paid in Manhattan, although their 280,000 jobs represent less than a sixth of the total (1.8 million), and that first figure itself is skewed, considering the relatively small percentage of employees at Wall Street firms who make fabulous amounts. Meanwhile, incomes for restaurant, hotel, retail and health care workers stagnate, in many cases at near-poverty levels.

Real estate brokers, luxury automobile and jewelry dealers salivated at news of the Wall Street bonuses. According to the Times, “There are few things that can gladden the hearts of New York real estate brokers as much as the thought of billions of dollars in bonuses paid on Wall Street, moving from hedge funds and buyout fees to brick and stone, or in some cases, glass and steel, as this uncertain year of wavering condominium and co-op price draws to a close.”

The newspaper continued: “Not all buyers, of course, wait for bonus season. Among recent transactions was the $19 million sale of a co-op at 66 East 79th Street to J. Christopher Flowers, a former Goldman Sachs partner who formed his own investment fund, and who is listed by Forbes on its list of 400 richest Americans with a net worth of $1.2 billion. Then, Kenneth D. Brody, another former Goldman Sachs partner, who went on the head the United States Export-Import Bank during the Clinton administration, bought a fifth-floor apartment at 25 Sutton Place for $6.25 million.”

The vast amount paid out for real estate in Manhattan and affluent corners of the other boroughs is helping drive up housing costs. For working New Yorkers, affordable rents are disappearing. And social conditions for millions in the city continue to deteriorate.

In 2004, in the “richest city in the world,” an estimated 1.2 million people, including 400,000 children, lived in hunger or in households where having sufficient food was always in question.

In 2005, the top fifth of Manhattan’s earners reported making $330,244—about 41 times more than the $8,019 reported by the bottom fifth. The Bronx remains the poorest urban county in the country, with more than half of its households headed by a woman and including young children who live below the poverty level.

As is the case with every other social phenomenon, there are two holiday seasons in the US, one for the wealthy elite and another for the overwhelming majority of the population. The gap is registered by every significant social barometer.

In late November, Tiffany & Co. reported a 23 percent jump in earnings on increased sale of $20,000 rings and necklaces. The luxury retailer hiked its profit forecast for the year as a result of the holiday demand.

The Bloomberg wire service noted, “The US luxury market has grown as the number of Americans with financial assets of at least $1 million increased 6.5 percent last year, according to the World Wealth Report published by Capgemini Group and Merrill Lynch & Co. Tiffany and other US luxury retailers are poised to have a strong holiday season, analysts said.”

The Chicago Tribune commented, “So far, it’s a tale of two Christmases for retailers. Those stores catering to luxury shoppers are faring better than discount stores.” The International Council of Shopping Centers noted that sales at chain stores rose only 2.1 percent in November, reflecting, in particular, the poor showing of Wal-Mart, where millions of lower-income people shop, which experienced its worst performance in a decade.

A report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that the disparities in consumer expenditure among households at different income levels were greater in 2005 than in any year on record. The top fifth of households made 39 percent of all consumer expenditures in 2005, the highest share on record. The bottom 20 percent of the population made only eight percent of the expenditures, tied with 2004 for the lowest share ever.

The media and political establishment attempt to ignore this vast social chasm—or treat it as something of a joke. At one point in American history, and not so terribly long ago, the Goldman Sachs bonuses would have caused a furor. The amounts handed out, while tens of millions lived in poverty, would have been called a national disgrace. Congressmen would have demanded public hearings. Now, there is a shrug of the shoulder in the media, or an amused reference, or hints of envy and jealousy. The politicians, many of them multi-millionaires like Corzine, prefer to say nothing.

If anything, the vast pay-outs are seen as a positive sign. As a New York Times reporter, speaking for many, asserted, “Investment banking earnings are often proxies for the health of the American and global economy.”

On the contrary, the misappropriation of wealth to a handful of speculators and glorified bottom-feeders is a sign of a diseased social organism. The funneling of tens of billions into the hands of the elite, who will spend it on themselves, on their homes, yachts and private airplanes, means that useful and productive projects go by the wayside and grave social needs go unmet.

The Goldman Sachs figures made a few people in the media nervous. John Gibson, one of Fox News’s right-wing anchormen, wrote, “Yes, I’m for capitalism, but please. You’ve got guys like [Democratic Party politician] John Edwards saying there’s two Americas—the rich and the poor—playing the class game . . . My point is: Why do the fat cats have to work so hard at proving him right when by and large we know he’s wrong?”

The Washington Post business page opined, “Still, news of Wall Street’s Very, Very Good Year is likely to stir some resentment on Main Street—not because the economy is so bad as much as it is yet another reminder of the ever-widening gap between the super-rich and everyone else.”

Prosecutors Drop A.C.L.U. Subpoena in Document Fight

The New York Times
December 19, 2006

Federal prosecutors in New York yesterday withdrew a subpoena to the American Civil Liberties Union that had sought to retrieve all copies of a classified document.

In an opaque and defensive four-page letter to the judge in the case, the prosecutors said they were acting “in light of changed circumstances” and their determination that “the grand jury can obtain the evidence necessary to its investigation from other sources.”

Another factor may have played a role. A transcript of a closed hearing in the case that was unsealed yesterday suggested the government was going to lose.

Anthony D. Romero, the A.C.L.U.’s executive director, sounded jubilant in describing the development. “The government blinked in this standoff,” Mr. Romero said. The subpoena was unusual in that it sought not only to gather evidence but also to confiscate all tangible traces of the information in the document, apparently with the goal of preventing its distribution.

The document itself, declassified Friday and released by the A.C.L.U. yesterday, was not obviously confidential. An “information paper” dated Dec. 20, 2005, it was marked “secret” at the top and bottom of each of its four pages. The A.C.L.U. said it received the document in an unsolicited e-mail message in October.

The document collected a number of policies concerning photographs of enemy prisoners of war. Journalists, the document said, “are generally permitted, and to some extent even encouraged, to photograph” prisoners “from point-of-capture throughout the entire detainment process,” though they are discouraged from showing recognizable faces.

The document was dated almost two years after photographs of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were first made public and during the debate over the Detainee Treatment Act, which included an amendment introduced by Senator John McCain prohibiting the cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of detainees. President Bush signed the bill 10 days later.

A lawyer for the A.C.L.U. said that the document was potentially embarrassing, but that its release hardly endangered the national defense.

“If you read between the lines,” said the lawyer, Charles S. Sims, a First Amendment specialist at Proskauer Rose, “what it really says is that we want to exploit group photos of detainees.” The implicit instruction in the document, he said, was this: “If pictures of detainees can help sell the war, go for it.”

The effort to retrieve all copies of the document was a novel and, according to many legal experts, improper use of a grand jury subpoena. The subpoena cited a provision of the espionage laws that requires people in possession of some sorts of national security information to return it to the government if asked. But the A.C.L.U. said that the document at issue did not qualify and that, in any event, a subpoena was the wrong way to enforce the law.

In a transcript of a closed hearing in the case on Dec. 11 that was unsealed yesterday, Judge Jed S. Rakoff of Federal District Court in Manhattan seemed to indicate grave reservations about the tactic.

“What’s the authority for saying that a subpoenaed party can’t keep a copy of any document that they produced to the grand jury?” Judge Rakoff asked Jennifer G. Rodgers, an assistant United States attorney. Ms. Rodgers did not provide a direct answer, and yesterday’s letter withdrawing the subpoena did not address the question.

Later in the hearing, Judge Rakoff compared the situation to the Nixon administration’s effort to stop The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing a secret history of the Vietnam War.

“There seems to be a huge difference,” Judge Rakoff said, “between investigating a wrongful leak of a classified document and demanding back all copies of it, and I’m old enough to remember a case called the Pentagon Papers.”

In yesterday’s letter, Ms. Rodgers suggested that the A.C.L.U. had set up the government, creating a fight that could have been resolved informally.

“The government has attempted to pursue its investigation and its request for the document at issue in as amicable, cooperative and unobtrusive a manner as possible,” she wrote. The A.C.L.U. filed a motion to quash the subpoena, she wrote, even though “the matter might be something the parties could negotiate without litigation, which always remained the government’s strong preference.”

In an interview, Mr. Sims said of Ms. Rodgers’s letter, “Virtually every factoid in that presentation is entirely false.”

Judge Rakoff, too, in last week’s argument, appeared unconvinced by the government’s contention that it thought the matter could have been resolved short of litigation.

“It’s not easy to believe,” Judge Rakoff said, “that the A.C.L.U., despite its history, would be cooperative. Well, hope springs eternal.”

Mr. Romero, the A.C.L.U.’s executive director, said the case would have a lasting impact. “It certainly helps the press and whistle-blowers to resist the strong-arm efforts of the government,” he said.

US general issues warning: politics must not interfere with 100-year “war on terror”

By Bill Van Auken
19 December 2006

One of the Pentagon’s senior uniformed strategists warned last week that the “global war on terror” will go on for another 50 to 100 years and voiced concern that “politics” not be allowed to interfere with the protracted struggle.

The remarks were made by Brig. Gen. Mark O. Schissler, an Air Force commander and the Defense Department’s deputy director for the “war on terrorism.” He made them in an exclusive interview with the Washington Times, the right-wing daily owned by the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

“We’re in a generational war,” he told the paper. “You can try and fight the enemy where they are and where they’re attacking you, or prevent them and defend your own homeland,” he said. “But that’s not enough to stop it.”

The Washington Times went on to report, “Gen. Schissler said he is concerned that Washington politics is weakening the will of the nation.”

“I don’t care about the politics,” he told the newspaper. “I care about people understanding the facts of what our enemy is thinking about, what’s our strategy to defeat them, and for [Americans] to understand that it will take a long fight, mostly because our enemy is committed to the long fight.” He added, “They’re absolutely committed to the 50-, 100-year plan.”

“One of my concerns is how to maintain the American will, the public will over that duration,” the general said. He described this task as “very difficult.”

Difficult indeed. How is the “public will” to wage global warfare for the next century to be maintained, particularly when “politics” gets in the way?

Given the political context of Schissler remarks, his warnings have unmistakable and chilling implications.

Barely six weeks ago, the Bush administration, which initiated the “war on terror” and proclaimed Iraq to be its most important front, suffered a stunning defeat at the polls. The Republican Party’s loss of both houses of the US Congress was the result of mass popular opposition to the Iraq war.

This opposition has only deepened in the intervening weeks, as a series of opinion polls have demonstrated. A CBS News poll, for example, found that just 4 percent of Americans believe that terrorism is the most important problem confronting the country. The same poll found that a record 35 percent believe that the war in Iraq is the principal problem, with 71 percent saying the war is going badly and only 9 percent believing that the US is very likely to succeed in Iraq.

A USA Today poll found that two-thirds believe that the costs of the US succeeding in Iraq outweigh the benefits. A clear majority wants all US troops withdrawn from the country within the next year, while 74 percent say all combat troops should be withdrawn by March 2008.

Not only is the American public unwilling to support a century of wars of aggression, it has reached the conclusion that the three-and-a-half-year-old war in Iraq should never have been launched and should be brought to a speedy end. This is the threat to the “American will” about which Gen. Schissler is so concerned.

This supposed “will” to wage war—what could better be described as a temporary and forced acquiescence—was achieved through political deception and intimidation, by terrorizing the population with the supposed threat of attack in the wake of the September 11, 2001 tragedy.

As all of the pretexts used to promote the war—weapons of mass destruction, Baghdad-Al Qaeda ties, etc.—were exposed as lies, and as the war itself turned into an ever-more bloody debacle, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and either killing or wounding 25,000 US troops, the demand for withdrawal of US forces from Iraq was embraced by millions of Americans, including many in uniform.

The issue posed is not really sustaining the “will” to wage a 100-year war, but suppressing the mass opposition to war that has already found powerful political expression.

Among masses of American working people, there never was a will to wage wars of aggression. That outlook reflected the aims and schemes developed within the corporate and financial elite that rules America. This ruling layer has utilized the “global war on terror,” in which Gen. Schissler is a senior strategist, as the pretext for carrying out a military campaign aimed at imposing US domination over the oil-rich regions of the Persian Gulf and Central Asia as part of American capitalism’s pursuit of global hegemony.

In the aftermath of the 2006 midterm elections, it has become increasingly apparent that this ruling elite has no intention of bowing to the actual will of the people, as reflected at the polls, by bringing an end to the war and withdrawing US troops from Iraq. It is driven by its own economic necessity to offset a declining position on the world market by means of military force. And it fears that a withdrawal from Iraq will expose the underlying weakness of American imperialism, raising the danger of revolutionary crises both at home and abroad.

In his interview with the Washington Times, Schissler said that the century-long struggle he foresees will be waged against extremists determined to establish a global “caliphate” stretching from Spain to Indonesia. While there are, no doubt, a small number of radical Islamists who believe in such a crackpot scheme, this supposed threat has nothing to do with the military interventions now being carried out by Washington in the regions possessing the largest reserves of petroleum in the world.

The attempt to cast the wars being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq in religious terms has become an increasingly common refrain within the most right-wing sections of the political establishment in Washington, as well as within the military command. There is no doubt that this depiction of events is aimed at solidifying a base of support for war among a layer of Christian fundamentalists.

The most notorious example of this attempt to drum up a religious-based “will” to wage war came to light in 2003 with press reports of speeches delivered by Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, to audiences assembled by the Christian right.

Boykin repeatedly told audiences that the war was being waged by a “Christian army” and a “Christian nation” against Islamic forces aligned with Satan. He proclaimed that his own confidence in victory over a Muslim foe was based on the knowledge that “my God was bigger than his . . . my God was a real god and his was an idol.” He likewise declared that George W. Bush was “appointed by God,” despite having failed to win the majority of the votes in 2000, and indicated that he saw himself as answerable only to God’s commands.

While the general’s anti-Islamic bigotry and profoundly anti-democratic remarks provoked outrage, the Republican right and the Bush administration leapt to his defense. The general himself asked that a Pentagon inspector general investigate the controversy. The result was a report that avoided the content of Boykin’s remarks, delivering only the mildest rebuke for his failure to assert that they were his personal opinion and to clear them first with superiors.

General Boykin remains to this day the senior uniformed officer in military intelligence and a top policy-maker in the “war on terror,” overseeing assassination squads, illegal abductions and torture.

Schissler is not known to have delivered any similar religious-political diatribes. His service record posted on the Defense Department’s web site does, however, include the notation that in 1998, while climbing the promotional ladder to the Pentagon’s inner circle, the Air Force officer found time to complete a master’s degree in “pastoral studies.”

The politically protected ravings of Boykin as well as the expressions of concern by Schissler that “politics”—that is, the real will of the people—not be allowed to interfere with the official will to wage war are indicative of the right-wing and authoritarian tendencies that are being nurtured by American militarism and colonial-style occupation.

In the end, imposing upon the American people the “will” to sustain a 100-year war could be achieved only by dictatorial means similar to those utilized by the Nazis in their attempt to generate the “will” of the German people to sustain a 1,000-year Reich.

The danger posed by such right-wing tendencies is not that they have any substantial base of popular support, but that they emerge under conditions of deepening social and political polarization in which the opposition of American working people to war and repression can find no genuine expression within the political establishment and its two-party system.

God’s Gift?

The New York Times
December 19, 2006

One of the more disquieting aspects of the Iraqi occupation is that the president’s final rationale for it is a cherished, though groundless, liberal belief about freedom. As we now know, the war was motivated less by any real evidence of Iraqi involvement with terrorism than by the neoconservatives’ belief that they could stabilize the Middle East by spreading freedom there. Their erroneous assumption was a relic from the liberal past: the doctrine that freedom is a natural part of the human condition.

A disastrously simple-minded argument followed from this: that because freedom is instinctively “written in the hearts” of all peoples, all that is required for its spontaneous flowering in a country that has known only tyranny is the forceful removal of the tyrant and his party.

Once President Bush was beguiled by this argument he began to sound like a late-blooming schoolboy who had just discovered John Locke, the 17th-century founder of liberalism. In his second inaugural speech, Mr. Bush declared “complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom … because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul.” Later an Arab-American audience was told, “No matter what your faith, freedom is God’s gift to every person in every nation.” Another speech more explicitly laid out the neoconservative agenda: “We believe that freedom can advance and change lives in the greater Middle East.”

A basic flaw in the approach of the president and his neoliberal (a k a neoconservative) advisers was their failure to distinguish Western beliefs about freedom from those critical features of it that non-Western peoples were likely to embrace.

Those of us who cherish liberty hold as part of the rhetoric that it is “written in our heart,” an essential part of our humanity. It is among the first civic lessons that we teach our children. But such legitimizing rhetoric should not blind us to the fact that freedom is neither instinctive nor universally desired, and that most of the world’s peoples have found so little need to express it that their indigenous languages did not even have a word for it before Western contact. It is, instead, a distinctive product of Western civilization, crafted through the centuries from its contingent social and political struggles and secular reflections, as well as its religious doctrines and conflicts.

Acknowledging the Western social origins of freedom in no way implies that we abandon the effort to make it universal. We do so, however, not at the point of a gun but by persuasion — through diplomacy, intercultural conversation and public reason, encouraged, where necessary, with material incentives. From this can emerge a global regime wherein freedom is embraced as the best norm and practice for private life and government.

Just such a conversation has been under way since the first signing, in 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations. Several Asian nations — some, like China, rather cynically, and others, like Singapore, with more robust reasoning — have vigorously contested elements of the culture of freedom, especially its individualism, on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the more communal focus of their own cultures. The doctrine of freedom, however, with its own rich communitarian heritage, can easily disarm and even co-opt such arguments.

The good news is that freedom has been steadily carrying the day: nearly all nations now at least proclaim universal human rights as an ideal, though many are yet to put their constitutional commitments to practice. Freedom House’s data show the share of the world’s genuinely free countries increasing from 25 to 46 percent between 1975 and 2005.

The bad news is Iraq. Apart from the horrible toll in American and Iraqi lives, two disastrous consequences seem likely to follow from this debacle. One is the possibility that, by the time America extricates itself, most Iraqis and other Middle Easterners will have come to identify freedom with chaos, deprivation and national humiliation. The other is that most Americans will become so disgusted with foreign engagements that a new insularism will be forced on their leaders in which the last thing that voters would wish to hear is any talk about the global promotion of freedom, whatever “God’s gift” and the “longing of the soul.”

Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, is a guest columnist.

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