Saturday, June 09, 2007

Outing the Out of Touch

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 10, 2007


Be honest. Who would you rather share a foxhole with: a gay soldier or Mitt Romney?

A gay soldier, of course. In a dicey situation like that, you need someone steadfast who knows who he is and what he believes, even if he’s not allowed to say it out loud.

Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, as the gloriously gay Oscar Wilde said. And gays are the sacrifice that hypocritical Republican candidates offer to placate “values” voters — even though some candidates are not so finicky about morals regarding their own affairs and divorces.

They may coo over the photo of Dick Cheney, whose re-election campaign demonized gays, proudly smiling with his new grandson, the first baby of his lesbian daughter, Mary.

But they’ll hold the line, by jiminy, against gay Americans who are willing to die or be horribly disfigured in the cursed Bush/Cheney war in Iraq.

Peter Pace, whose job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff became a casualty of Iraq on Friday, asserted in March that homosexual acts “are immoral.” Yet in May, he wrote a letter to the judge in the Scooter Libby case, pleading for leniency for the Cheney aide. Scooter always looked for “the right way to proceed — both legally and morally,” General Pace wrote of the man who lied to a grand jury about the outing of a spy, after he pumped up the fake case for the war that has claimed the lives of 3,500 young men and women serving under the general.

At the G.O.P. debate in New Hampshire last week, the contenders were more homophobic than the mobsters on “The Sopranos,” unanimously supporting the inane “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Even Rudy Giuliani, who loves to cross-dress and who stayed with old friends, a gay couple, to avoid Gracie Mansion when his second marriage was disintegrating, had an antediluvian answer.

Wolf Blitzer asked him about the Arabic linguists trained by the government who have been ousted from the military after being outed.

Mr. Giuliani, who procured three deferments to avoid Vietnam, replied that, with the war in Iraq raging, “This is not the time to deal with disruptive issues like this.”

If he’s so concerned with disruptive issues, maybe he should start worrying about this one: Two straight guys who slithered out of going to Vietnam are devising a losing strategy in Iraq year after year. W. and Dick Cheney have fouled things up so badly that Robert Gates and Tony Snow are now pointing to South Korea — where American troops have stayed for over half a century — as a model.

Mitt Romney agreed with Rudy on the issue. Instead of going to Vietnam, Mr. Romney spent two and a half years doing Mormon missionary work in France. Isn’t that like doing Peace Corps work in Monte Carlo?

At the memorial for Mark Bingham, the gay 6-foot-5 rugby player who was on Flight 93 on 9/11, John McCain said he might owe his life to the young man who helped fight the hijackers, bringing down the plane aiming to crash into the Capitol.

But Senator McCain wants gay troops to stay closeted. The policy, he said, is “working.” But it’s not. The Army in Iraq is like that exhausted nag Scarlett O’Hara whipped on to Tara. Yet Republicans surge on, even as they expel gays.

In a Times Op-Ed piece Friday, Stephen Benjamin, a gay Arabic translator eager to go to Iraq, told how he was dismissed when the Navy learned his status. “Consider,” he wrote. “More than 58 Arabic linguists have been kicked out since ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was instituted. How much valuable intelligence could those men and women be providing today to troops in harm’s way?”

He noted that 11,000 other service members have been shoved out since 1993 and speculated that if the Army had not been so short of Arabic translators, the cables that went untranslated on Sept. 10, 2001, might have been translated, preventing 9/11.

In 2000, the British military began letting anyone who served say if they were “a poof,” as one squadron leader put it. Sarah Lyall wrote in The Times that the military reports that none of its fears “about harassment, discord, blackmail, bullying or an erosion of unit cohesion or military effectiveness have come to pass.”

America has been Will-and-Graced since Bill Clinton had his kerfuffle on the issue in 1993. Tolerance has blossomed, especially among younger Americans. According to a Pew poll, 4-in-10 Americans say they have close friends or relatives who are gay.

The Republican field seems stale and out of sync. They should have listened to the inimitable Barry Goldwater, who told it true: You don’t have to be straight to shoot straight.

Israel Discovers Oil

Op-Ed Columnist
The Newe York Times
June 10, 2007


Lucien Bronicki is one of Israel’s foremost experts in geothermal power, but when I ran into him last week at Ben Gurion University, in Israel’s Negev Desert, all he wanted to talk about was oil wells. Israel, he told me, had discovered oil.

Pointing to a room full of young Israeli high-tech college seniors, Mr. Bronicki remarked: “These are our oil wells.”

It was quite a scene. Once a year Ben Gurion students in biomedical engineering, software, electrical engineering and computing create elaborate displays of their senior projects or — as in the case of a student-made robot that sidled up to me — demonstrate devices they’ve invented.

On this occasion, Yossi Vardi, the godfather of Israeli venture capitalism — ever since he backed the four young Israelis who invented the first Internetwide instant messaging system, Mirabilis, which was sold to AOL for $400 million in 1998 — brought some of his venture capital pals, like Mr. Bronicki, down to Ben Gurion to scout out potential start-ups and to mentor the grads.

The first student exhibit I visited was by Yuval Sharoni, 26, an electrical engineering senior, whose project was titled an “Innovative Covariance Matrix for Point Target Detection in Hyperspectral Images” (which has to do with military targeting). When I told him I was from The Times, he declared: “This project is going to make the front page, I’m telling you.” The cover of Popular Mechanics, maybe, but it could one day make the Nasdaq, where Israel now has the most companies listed of any nation outside of the United States.

“Today, every Israeli Jewish mother wants her son to be a dropout and go create a start-up,” said Mr. Vardi, who is currently invested in 38 different ones.

Which gets to the point of this column: If you want to know why Israel’s stock market and car sales are at record highs — while Israel’s government is paralyzed by scandals and war with Hamas and doesn’t even have a finance minister — it’s because of this ecosystem of young innovators and venture capitalists. Last year, VCs poured about $1.4 billion into Israeli start-ups, which puts Israel in a league with India and China.

Israel is Exhibit A of an economic phenomenon I see a lot these days. Of course, competition between countries and between companies still matters. But when the world becomes this flat — with so many distributed tools of innovation and connectivity empowering individuals from anywhere to compete, connect and collaborate — the most important competition is between you and your own imagination, because energetic, innovative and connected individuals can now act on their imaginations farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before.

Those countries and companies that empower their individuals to imagine and act quickly on their imagination are going to thrive. So while there are reasons to be pessimistic about Israel these days, there is one huge reason for optimism: this country has a culture that nurtures and rewards individual imagination — one with no respect for limits or hierarchies, or fear of failure. It’s a perfect fit with this era of globalization.

“We are not investing in products or business plans today, but in people who have the ability to imagine and connect dots,” said Nimrod Kozlovski, a top Israeli expert on Internet law who also works with start-ups. Israel is not good at building big companies, he explained, but it is very good at producing people who say, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could do this ...,” then create a start-up to do it — which is later bought out and expanded by an Intel, Microsoft or Google.

“The motto here is not work hard but dream hard,” Mr. Kozlovski added. “I had some guy come see me the other day and say, ‘You know Google? They make a lot of money, very famous, right? They’re not that good. We have a much better system that correlates to the cognitive process of searching. Google is worth $50 billion? Probably we can match their numbers.’ He was dead serious.”

My guess is that the flatter the world becomes, the wider the economic gap we will see between those countries that empower individual imagination and those that don’t. High oil prices can temporarily disguise that gap, but it’s growing.

Iran’s ignorant president, who keeps babbling about how Israel is going to disappear, ought to pay a visit to Ben Gurion and see these rooms buzzing with student innovators, with projects called “Integration Points for IP Multimedia Subsystems” and “Algorithms for Obstacle Detection and Avoidance.” These are oil wells that don’t run dry.

The Universe, Expanding Beyond All Understanding

The New York Times
June 5, 2007

When Albert Einstein was starting out on his cosmological quest 100 years ago, the universe was apparently a pretty simple and static place. Common wisdom had it that all creation consisted of an island of stars and nebulae known as the Milky Way surrounded by infinite darkness.

We like to think we’re smarter than that now. We know space is sprinkled from now to forever with galaxies rushing away from one another under the impetus of the Big Bang.

Bask in your knowledge while you can. Our successors, whoever and wherever they are, may have no way of finding out about the Big Bang and the expanding universe, according to one of the more depressing scientific papers I have ever read.

If things keep going the way they are, Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University and Robert J. Scherrer of Vanderbilt University calculate, in 100 billion years the only galaxies left visible in the sky will be the half-dozen or so bound together gravitationally into what is known as the Local Group, which is not expanding and in fact will probably merge into one starry ball.

Unable to see any galaxies flying away, those astronomers will not know the universe is expanding and will think instead that they are back in the static island universe of Einstein. As the authors, who are physicists, write in a paper to be published in The Journal of Relativity and Gravitation, “observers in our ‘island universe’ will be fundamentally incapable of determining the true nature of the universe.”

It is hard to count all the ways in which this is sad. Forget the implied mortality of our species and everything it has or has not accomplished. If you are of a certain science fiction age, like me, you might have grown up with a vague notion of the evolution of the universe as a form of growing self-awareness: the universe coming to know itself, getting smarter and smarter, culminating in some grand understanding, commanding the power to engineer galaxies and redesign local spacetime.

Instead, we have the prospect of a million separate Sisyphean efforts with one species after another pushing the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down and be forgotten.

Worse, it makes you wonder just how smug we should feel about our own knowledge.

“There may be fundamentally important things that determine the universe that we can’t see,” Dr. Krauss said in an interview. “You can have right physics, but the evidence at hand could lead to the wrong conclusion. The same thing could be happening today.”

The proximate culprit here is dark energy, which has been responsible for much of the bad news in physics over the last 10 years. This is the mysterious force, discovered in 1998, that is accelerating the cosmic expansion that is causing the galaxies to rush away faster and faster. The leading candidate to explain that acceleration is a repulsion embedded in space itself, known as the cosmological constant. Einstein postulated the existence of such a force back in 1917 to explain why the universe didn’t collapse into a black hole, and then dropped it when Edwin Hubble discovered that distant galaxies were flying away — the universe was expanding.

If this is Einstein’s constant at work — and some astronomers despair of ever being able to say definitively whether it is or is not — the future is clear and dark. In their paper, Dr. Krauss and Dr. Scherrer extrapolated forward in time what has become a sort of standard model of the universe, 14 billion years old, and composed of a trace of ordinary matter, a lot of dark matter and Einstein’s cosmological constant.

As this universe expands and there is more space, there is more force pushing the galaxies outward faster and faster. As they approach the speed of light, the galaxies will approach a sort of horizon and simply vanish from view, as if they were falling into a black hole, their light shifted to infinitely long wavelengths and dimmed by their great speed. The most distant galaxies disappear first as the horizon slowly shrinks around us like a noose.

A similar cloak of invisibility will befall the afterglow of the Big Bang, an already faint bath of cosmic microwaves, whose wavelengths will be shifted so that they are buried by radio noise in our own galaxy. Another vital clue, the abundance of deuterium, a heavy form of hydrogen manufactured in the Big Bang, in deep space, will become unobservable because to be seen it needs to be backlit from distant quasars, and those quasars, of course, will have disappeared.

Eventually, in the far far future, this runaway dark energy will suck all the energy and life out of the universe. A few years ago, Edward Witten, a prominent theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study, called a universe that is accelerating forever “not very appealing.” Dr. Krauss has called it simply “the worst possible universe.”

But our future cosmologists will be spared this vision, according to the calculations. Instead they will puzzle about why the visible universe seems to consist of six galaxies, Dr. Krauss said. “What is the significance of six? Hundreds of papers will be written on that,” he said.

Those cosmologists may worry instead that their galaxy cloud will collapse into a black hole one day and, like Einstein, propose a cosmic repulsion to prevent it. But they will have no way of knowing if they were right.

Although by then the universe will be mostly dark energy, Dr. Krauss said, it will be undetectable unless astronomers want to follow the course of the occasional star that gets thrown out of the galaxy and is caught up in the dark cosmic current. But it would have to be followed for 10 billion years, he said — an experiment the National Science Foundation would be unlikely to finance.

“This is even weirder,” Dr. Krauss said. “Five billion years ago dark energy was unobservable; 100 billion years from now it will become invisible again.”

It turns out that you don’t actually need dark energy to be this pessimistic about the future, as Dr. Krauss and Dr. Scherrer point out. In 1987, George Ellis, a mathematician and astronomer at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, and Tony Rothman, currently lecturing at Princeton, wrote a paper showing how even ordinary expansion would gradually carry most galaxies too far away to be seen, setting the stage for cosmic ignorance.

Dark energy speeds up the picture, Dr. Ellis said in an e-mail message, adding that he was glad to see the new paper, which adds many astrophysical details. “It’s an interesting gloss on the far future,” he said.

James Peebles, a Princeton cosmologist, said there were more pressing worries. We might be headed toward a universe that is “asymptotically empty,” he said, “But I have the uneasy feeling that the U.S.A. is headed into asymptotic futility well before that.”

You might object that the inhabitants of the far future will be far more advanced than we are. Maybe they will be able to detect dark energy — or the extra dimensions of string theory, for that matter — in the laboratory. Maybe they will even be us, in some form or other, if the human race manages to get out of the solar system before the Sun blows up in five billion years. But if relativity is right, they won’t be able to build telescopes that can see past the edge of the universe.

It’s not too late to start thinking about sending out the robot probes that could drift down through alien skies eons from now with, if not us or our DNA, at least a few nuggets of wisdom — that the world is made of atoms and that it started with a bang.

The lesson in the meantime is that we don’t know what we don’t know, and we never will — a lesson that extends beyond astronomy.

Einstein once said, “The Lord God is subtle but malicious he is not.”

I wondered in light of this new report whether it might be time to revise that quotation. Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me the problem was not malice but human arrogance — a necessary but unfortunate condition for scientific progress.

“We have a tendency to put ourselves at the center of the universe,” he said. “We assume all we see is all there is.”

But, as Dr. Tegmark noted, Big Bang theorists already suppose that basic aspects of the universe are out of sight.

The reason we believe we live in a smooth, orderly universe instead of the chaotic one that is more likely, they say, is that the chaos has been hidden. According to the dominant theory of the Big Bang, known as inflation, an extremely violent version of dark energy blew it up a fraction of a second after time began, stretching and smoothing space and pushing all the wildness and chaos and even perhaps other universes out of the sky, where they will never be seen.

“Inflation tells us we live in a messy universe,” Dr. Tegmark said. Luckily we never have to confront it.

Ignorance is us, or is it bliss?

School to Prison Pipeline

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 9, 2007

The latest news-as-entertainment spectacular is the Paris Hilton criminal justice fiasco. She’s in! She’s out! She’s — whatever.

Far more disturbing (and much less entertaining) is the way school officials and the criminal justice system are criminalizing children and teenagers all over the country, arresting them and throwing them in jail for behavior that in years past would never have led to the intervention of law enforcement.

This is an aspect of the justice system that is seldom seen. But the consequences of ushering young people into the bowels of police precincts and jail cells without a good reason for doing so are profound.

Two months ago I wrote about a 6-year-old girl in Florida who was handcuffed by the police and taken off to the county jail after she threw a tantrum in her kindergarten class.

Police in Brooklyn recently arrested more than 30 young people, ages 13 to 22, as they walked toward a subway station, on their way to a wake for a teenage friend who had been murdered. No evidence has been presented that the grieving young people had misbehaved. No drugs or weapons were found. But they were accused by the police of gathering unlawfully and of disorderly conduct.

In March, police in Baltimore handcuffed a 7-year-old boy and took him into custody for riding a dirt bike on the sidewalk. The boy tearfully told The Baltimore Examiner, “They scared me.” Mayor Sheila Dixon later apologized for the arrest.

Children, including some who are emotionally disturbed, are often arrested for acting out. Some are arrested for carrying sharp instruments that they had planned to use in art classes, and for mouthing off.

This is a problem that has gotten out of control. Behavior that was once considered a normal part of growing up is now resulting in arrest and incarceration.

Kids who find themselves caught in this unnecessary tour of the criminal justice system very quickly develop malignant attitudes toward law enforcement. Many drop out — or are forced out — of school. In the worst cases, the experience serves as an introductory course in behavior that is, in fact, criminal.

There is a big difference between a child or teenager who brings a gun to school or commits some other serious offense and someone who swears at another student or gets into a wrestling match or a fistfight in the playground. Increasingly, especially as zero-tolerance policies proliferate, children are being treated like criminals for the most minor offenses.

There should be no obligation to call the police if a couple of kids get into a fight and teachers are able to bring it under control. But now, in many cases, youngsters caught fighting are arrested and charged with assault.

A 2006 report on disciplinary practices in Florida schools showed that a middle school student in Palm Beach County who was caught throwing rocks at a soda can was arrested and charged with a felony — hurling a “deadly missile.”

We need to get a grip.

The Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union has been studying this issue. “What we see routinely,” said Dennis Parker, the program’s director, “is that behavior that in my time would have resulted in a trip to the principal’s office is now resulting in a trip to the police station.”

He added that the evidence seems to show that white kids are significantly less likely to be arrested for minor infractions than black or Latino kids. The 6-year-old arrested in Florida was black. The 7-year-old arrested in Baltimore was black.

Shaquanda Cotton was black. She was the 14-year-old high school freshman in Paris, Tex., who was arrested for shoving a hall monitor. She was convicted in March 2006 of “assault on a public servant” and sentenced to a prison term of — hold your breath — up to seven years!

Shaquanda’s outraged family noted that the judge who sentenced her had, just three months earlier, sentenced a 14-year-old white girl who was convicted of arson for burning down her family’s home. The white girl was given probation.

Shaquanda was recently released after a public outcry over her case and the eruption of a scandal involving allegations of widespread sexual abuse of incarcerated juveniles in Texas.

This issue deserves much more attention. Sending young people into the criminal justice system unnecessarily is a brutal form of abuse with consequences, for the child and for society as a whole, that can last a lifetime.

Friday, June 08, 2007

!!! FREE PARIS !!!

The campaign to keep Paris Hilton in jail: nothing healthy about it

By David Walsh
9 June 2007

The pious outrage Thursday over heiress Paris Hilton’s “early release” from jail in Los Angeles, accusations of “special treatment” and the vindictive demands that she receive “justice,” i.e., punishment, have nothing healthy or progressive about them—as the images of Hilton being taken in handcuffs to court Friday morning and from there, sobbing, back to prison should indicate.

In the first place, one only has to consider those campaigning for her continued imprisonment The Rev. Al Sharpton, former FBI informer and demagogue, had plans to come to Los Angeles to protest this case of “celebrity injustice” in front of Hilton’s house and, coincidentally, flocks of photographers.

A host of Los Angeles politicians, on a daily basis utterly indifferent to the conditions of the poor, seized the opportunity of Hilton’s release to posture as the champions of equal justice. County supervisor Don Knabe told the Associated Press, “What transpired here is outrageous.” Her early release, he said, “gives the impression of ... celebrity justice being handed out.” Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, the prosecutor in Hilton’s case, pontificated, “We cannot tolerate a two-tiered jail system where the rich and powerful receive special treatment.”

What hypocrisy! In a country where Wall Street swindlers and Washington war criminals not only go scot-free, but are routinely celebrated by the media! Hilton, it should be remembered, is guilty of driving with a suspended license.

The cable television news shows Thursday were consumed by pundits expressing their indignation over Hilton’s release to house arrest for the remainder of her sentence. One of the few voices of reason was well-known attorney Mark Geragos, who appeared on the Larry King program on CNN Thursday evening.

Geragos pointed out that due to the horrific overcrowding in Los Angeles County jails, many non-violent offenders are released early—some 200,000 in recent years, according to an item on CBS News.

“In fact,” Geragos noted, “she did about double to triple what anybody else would have done ... I’ve had one [client] within the last week who literally turned themselves in, took the bus ride and were released right from county jail onto the electronic monitoring and then was released from that in six days ... So when people say Paris was getting special treatment, I say, yes. She got double or triple what everybody else in LA County gets.”

Along the same lines, attorney Leonard Levine told the Washington Post that the overcrowding in the Los Angeles County jail system—25,000 prisoners in a space for 12,000—results in thousands of non-violent offenders serving only 10 percent of their sentences (which was Hilton’s situation). “She did as much as a normal person would have done,” he commented.

Friday morning, on orders of the judge in the case, who complained that papers concerning her early release on medical grounds had never been delivered to him, Hilton was brought by police car to the court.

Following her appearance, according to the Associated Press, Hilton “was escorted out ... screaming and crying and sent back to jail ... after a judge ruled that she must serve out her entire 45-day sentence behind bars rather than in her Hollywood Hills home. ‘It’s not right!’ shouted the weeping Hilton, who violated her parole in a reckless driving case. ‘Mom!’ she called out to her mother in the audience.”

Is this justice served? One can only feel sympathy for the young woman and contempt for the authorities in this case.

There are many unhealthy aspects to this whole business. In the first place, the Paris Hilton celebrity phenomenon was a product of the foul media-entertainment apparatus in the US and a generally diseased social climate. Under healthier circumstances, Hilton’s “bad girl” antics would have been of concern only to her family and close friends.

As conditions have worsened in the US for millions, as social mobility has declined and as real-life opportunities have dried up, the need to live vicariously through celebrities—athletes, supermodels, film stars, etc.—has grown exponentially. Great numbers of Americans pursue imaginary lives through their idols and project their fantasies onto the objects of their fascination.

At the same time, this is a highly volatile and fluid relationship. The same processes breeding vicarious living, i.e., stunted real lives, also produce resentment, jealousy and even rage, of a generally unformed and even anti-social variety. This is not, for the most part, a class-conscious rejection of the celebrity’s status and the very need for celebrities. Hostility toward such figures is often linked with envy.

All of this is played upon by the media for its own cynical purposes, both to sell its products and to divert attention from genuinely pressing issues. The media plays on the public’s worship of celebrities and, when the latter stumble, leads the way in “teaching them a lesson” and “cutting them down to size.”

Hilton is a particular case. She is one of the first celebrities whose coverage has been generally negative from the outset. She has chosen to play, or more accurately, the media has fitted her out for the part of the spoiled, obnoxious, rich brat, only interested in parties and clothes and headlines.

These processes are complex and don’t work themselves out as the result of any pre-arranged plan, but it’s worth noting that Hilton’s time in the limelight has coincided with the deepening of popular discontent with the war in Iraq, corporate corruption, official moves toward a police state and the destruction of secure jobs on a mass scale.

To help retard the development of a rational opposition to the current political and social state of affairs, the media cultivates an artificial hostility toward much easier targets. A seething but politically confused population is fed victims, sacrificial lambs, so to speak, while the real criminals go about their business.

The aim, conscious or otherwise, is to make sorting out what is actually taking place in the country more difficult by encouraging a facile and undemanding (and perhaps temporarily cathartic) outrage against a Paris Hilton or some other such figure. The population is intended to feel, falsely, that its cause has been served and blows have been delivered against the rich and powerful, when all that’s happened is a young woman guilty of a misdemeanor has gone to jail for a month or more.

Anyone who falls for the supposed ‘egalitarian’ aims of the campaign to keep Hilton in prison is fooling him- or herself.

‘Sopranos’ Grief

By Dick Cavett
The New York Times
June 6, 2007

I welcome any advice anyone has about a certain problem: How is a person supposed to live without “The Sopranos”?

Last Sunday’s penultimate episode gave me a vivid nightmare. A woman I know was unable to sleep at all after watching it. God knows what watching the ultimate one will do this weekend, on what we the devoted think of as Black Sunday.

The great David Chase, who created it all, decided to pull the plug on his stately craft while her sails are still billowing, an action as rare in the world of television as a sincere compliment. Or a program as good as “The Sopranos.”

I’m glad it’s only a rumor that he has had to increase security for himself against armed fans unable to accept the reality of the long-dreaded terminus. How can we fan(atic)s of the show express our boundless gratitude to Mr. Chase? Maybe we could all sign one huge “thank you” to him — a Hallmark card the size of New Jersey. Were this Japan, Chase-san would have long since been declared a Living National Treasure.

Accusations of name-dropping are bred of envy, and I felt it strongly toward anyone who met or claimed to have met actors from the show — until, that is, I met actors from the show. I came bounding home some years ago to announce to my wife (the late Carrie Nye, an actress) that we could go to a party where there would be members of the cast. She declined: “They’re such fine actors, but I don’t want to know that they’re actors. I want them to remain those people.”

Please resist envy, then, when I say that I have gotten to know and hang out with the sinfully talented Michael Imperioli (“Christopher,” Tony’s problem nephew, as well as the author of numerous episodes). Having dinner with him (and his wife) had no effect whatever of the kind my wife refused to risk. There he was, a day later, on the show: Christopher again. Moving, scary and certainly no one I had ever met. The magic of acting.

This year, Michael got me onto the set and I was in hog heaven. Getting to rub shoulders with cast members and lucky souls like wardrobe people and best boys who got to be there every day, and magic names I knew from the screen credits like Brad Grey — all of it a most heady experience. I stayed long and late and left feeling like a kid coming back from the circus, with nothing to look forward to but home and school.

I don’t know how to relate, nor what to say, to people who gave the show a pass because they “didn’t want to see another crime show.” I suppose it’s possible to lead a full life without ever having known what is meant by “Bada Bing” or “Big Pussy” or “Uncle Junior” or “Dr. Melfi,” but I’m not sure. I doubt that such willfully self-deprived souls would welcome my sympathy. But, my God, what they missed. If I were artistic commissar it would have been required viewing.

(I feel much sorrier for those who sampled it and found nothing to admire. They are beyond hope.)

I gave DVDs of the show’s first season to a very intelligent, well-educated, couple I know. They are high-toned people. They scorn television. To shut me up, they agreed to watch at least part of the first show late one afternoon. They tolerated, with a snicker, my suggestion that as in the potato chip commercial, they couldn’t watch just one episode. They later confessed that they barely moved as both dinner and bedtime came and went before they could make themselves shut it off.

A special Emmy should be awarded for the casting. There was not a dud in the carload. And no one was ever just a type. They were whole, intricately complex people and we got to peer into their lives and personalities to a degree I’ve never seen achieved before.

I don’t know enough about camera technique, cutting and editing skills to be able to explain why the violence was, strange to say, better violence than you get elsewhere. It was cruelly and sometimes repellently real. You got a solid, visceral punch. Where else would a man, having stomped and kicked the head of his victim, look down later during his therapy session and remove a bloody tooth with some clinging gum tissue from his cuff? You wouldn’t say it was funny, but it was handled in such a way that it was not entirely unfunny.

Maybe the show’s trickiest accomplishment was the way it made characters clearly deserving of hate be so sympathetic. You could not only find yourself liking an evil character, but having fun feeling guilty about it. How could you not feel a tug at your heart when a tough and disreputable gangster, Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), confesses to having sought professional help? (“Right now we’re working on my coping skills.”)

I found it rewarding to watch each episode a second time. Subtleties of both dialogue and acting were often missed on a single viewing.

I’m afraid, by the way, that I have no patience with pressure groups of the kind that have arisen from time to time, wanting “The Sopranos” killed because it gave a bad name to Italian-Americans; implying, they felt, that all folks from Italy are gangsters. It doesn’t, of course, and couldn’t. But it reminds me of when the same problem came up with the highly popular “The Untouchables.” Why, it was demanded, must all the crooks have Italian names? Since the show dealt with real figures, it would have been a bit silly to change Al Capone’s name to, say, Al Hollinshed. (A great comedy writer, the late Jack Douglas, offered a solution. When asked about this, he said, “Why not get the gangsters to change their names?”)

The fact that James Gandolfini wasn’t necessarily the first or only choice for the role of Tony is scary. And Edie Falco has confessed that she almost didn’t get the part of Carmela; not because she wasn’t good enough but because she almost didn’t go to the casting appointment: “I’d been four other places that day and I was tired and it sounded like a show about singers and….” As she admits, what she got was, simply, “the part of a lifetime.”

Gandolfini and Falco. These two gifted actors created a classic dramatic couple. I see them as no less than the Lunt and Fontanne of their particular artistic world. (I can hear the uninitiated saying, “Get hold of yourself, Cavett.” Let ‘em.)

Well, it’s nearly closing time in the gardens of New Jersey. The “Sopranos” Web site is full of speculation by fans. Will Tony die in the final episode? (If the show ends but he doesn’t, where does that leave him? And us?) Will David Chase ever reveal the formula for such a smashing success? And could it be as simple as: perfect writing, casting, acting, directing, costuming, lighting and editing? And make-up?

Having to make do without any new episodes of what, in the fullness of time, will be judged to be the Mt. Everest of television achievement is a chilling prospect.

If only there were a rehab place to deal with us, the addicted ones. Or, maybe, some kind of “Sopranos” Nicorettes?


Postcript: It’s nice for me to think that someday a trivia test may contain an extra-points-for-difficulty question: In what episode of “The Sopranos” was Dick Cavett seen?

The jackpot answer is: May 13, 2007. Tony and Carmela are in bed, anguishing over their problems and unable to sleep. She asks if it’s okay to turn on the TV. And there I am: Little Dickie Cavett from Nebraska being watched by two of his idols. (I blush to confess that I sort of hoped one of them would utter a favorable comment.) It’s a clip from my Katharine Hepburn shows.

This so gladdened my heart that I think — now, at least — it’s my favorite résumé item. (Do you think Miss H. would be similarly thrilled?)

Lies, Sighs and Politics

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 8, 2007

In Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate, Mitt Romney completely misrepresented how we ended up in Iraq. Later, Mike Huckabee mistakenly claimed that it was Ronald Reagan’s birthday.

Guess which remark The Washington Post identified as the “gaffe of the night”?

Folks, this is serious. If early campaign reporting is any guide, the bad media habits that helped install the worst president ever in the White House haven’t changed a bit.

You may not remember the presidential debate of Oct. 3, 2000, or how it was covered, but you should. It was one of the worst moments in an election marked by news media failure as serious, in its way, as the later failure to question Bush administration claims about Iraq.

Throughout that debate, George W. Bush made blatantly misleading statements, including some outright lies — for example, when he declared of his tax cut that “the vast majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder.” That should have told us, right then and there, that he was not a man to be trusted.

But few news reports pointed out the lie. Instead, many news analysts chose to critique the candidates’ acting skills. Al Gore was declared the loser because he sighed and rolled his eyes — failing to conceal his justified disgust at Mr. Bush’s dishonesty. And that’s how Mr. Bush got within chad-and-butterfly range of the presidency.

Now fast forward to last Tuesday. Asked whether we should have invaded Iraq, Mr. Romney said that war could only have been avoided if Saddam “had opened up his country to I.A.E.A. inspectors, and they’d come in and they’d found that there were no weapons of mass destruction.” He dismissed this as an “unreasonable hypothetical.”

Except that Saddam did, in fact, allow inspectors in. Remember Hans Blix? When those inspectors failed to find nonexistent W.M.D., Mr. Bush ordered them out so that he could invade. Mr. Romney’s remark should have been the central story in news reports about Tuesday’s debate. But it wasn’t.

There wasn’t anything comparable to Mr. Romney’s rewritten history in the Democratic debate two days earlier, which was altogether on a higher plane. Still, someone should have called Hillary Clinton on her declaration that on health care, “we’re all talking pretty much about the same things.” While the other two leading candidates have come out with plans for universal (John Edwards) or near-universal (Barack Obama) health coverage, Mrs. Clinton has so far evaded the issue. But again, this went unmentioned in most reports.

By the way, one reason I want health care specifics from Mrs. Clinton is that she’s received large contributions from the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Will that deter her from taking those industries on?

Back to the debate coverage: as far as I can tell, no major news organization did any fact-checking of either debate. And post-debate analyses tended to be horse-race stuff mingled with theater criticism: assessments not of what the candidates said, but of how they “came across.”

Thus most analysts declared Mrs. Clinton the winner in her debate, because she did the best job of delivering sound bites — including her Bush-talking-point declaration that we’re safer now than we were on 9/11, a claim her advisers later tried to explain away as not meaning what it seemed to mean.

Similarly, many analysts gave the G.O.P. debate to Rudy Giuliani not because he made sense — he didn’t — but because he sounded tough saying things like, “It’s unthinkable that you would leave Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq and be able to fight the war on terror.” (Why?)

Look, debates involving 10 people are, inevitably, short on extended discussion. But news organizations should fight the shallowness of the format by providing the facts — not embrace it by reporting on a presidential race as if it were a high-school popularity contest.

For if there’s one thing I hope we’ve learned from the calamity of the last six and a half years, it’s that it matters who becomes president — and that listening to what candidates say about substantive issues offers a much better way to judge potential presidents than superficial character judgments. Mr. Bush’s tax lies, not his surface amiability, were the true guide to how he would govern.

And I don’t know if this country can survive another four years of Bush-quality leadership.

Reviving the Hamilton Agenda

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 8, 2007

These days there seem to be four schools of political economic thought. First, there are the limited government conservatives, who think taxes should be low and the state should be as small as possible. Second, there are the Hamiltonians, who believe in free market capitalism but think government should help people get the tools they need to compete in it.

Third, there are the mainstream liberals, who think government should intervene in small ways throughout the economy to soften the effects of creative destruction. Fourth, there are the populists, who believe the benefits of the global economy are going to the rich and we need to fundamentally rewrite the rules.

If you are reading this column, you’re keeping company with somebody in group No. 2. We Hamiltonians disagree with the limited government conservatives because, on its own, the market is failing to supply enough human capital. Despite all the incentives, 30 percent of kids drop out of high school and the college graduation rate has been flat for a generation.

Just when it needs a more skilled work force, the U.S. is getting a less skilled one. This is already taking a bite out of productivity growth, and the problem will get worse.

We Hamiltonians disagree with the third group, the mainstream liberals, because their programs haven’t worked out. Retraining programs for displaced workers have flopped. Tax code changes to reduce outsourcing are symbolic. Federal jobs programs aren’t effective. Moreover, the high taxes you need to pay for these programs sap the economy. There’s now a pile of evidence showing that higher taxes mean reduced working hours. In the face of Chinese and Indian competition, we don’t need Americans working less.

We Hamiltonians disagree with the populists because we don’t find their storyline persuasive. The populists argue that global trade is creating a race to the bottom that is leading to stagnant wages and vast inequality. But when you look at the details, you find that most inequality is caused by a rising education premium, by changes in household and family structure, by the fact that the rich now work longer hours than the less rich and by new salary structures that are more tied to individual performance. None of this can be addressed by changing global trade rules.

The global economy radically decreased poverty and increased living standards. It’s crazy to upend this complex system to return to some nostalgic vision of a 1950s industrial wonderland.

When it comes to what Hamiltonians are actually for, two big themes stand out. First, the overall economy has to remain dynamic. The biggest threat is the looming wall of entitlement debt. We Hamiltonians would break the current campaign silence on the issue by raising the retirement age and tackling medical inflation to make Medicare affordable.

The second big theme is a human capital agenda. No one policy can increase the quality of human capital, but a lifelong portfolio of policies can make a difference.

Children do better when raised in stable two-parent families. Bigger child tax credits and increasing the earned income tax credit can reduce the economic strain on young families (and shift the tax burden to older, affluent ones). Extending government income support to young men in exchange for work would make them more marriageable.

Nurse practitioners who make home visits can stabilize disorganized, single-parent families. Quality preschool can help young children from those disorganized homes develop the self-motivation skills they’ll need to succeed.

The most important thing in a school is quality teachers. That means there should be merit pay for the best, and a change in the certification rules (we should allow more people into the profession and weed out the mediocre ones, regardless of their certification).

Senior citizen groups could mentor students to keep them emotionally engaged during college years. National service should be a rite of passage, forcing city kids to work with rural kids, and vice versa.

Middle-aged workers need portable pensions and health insurance so they can move and take risks. The immigration system should reward skills, like the college admissions system. The government should increase funding for basic research, especially in math, engineering and physics.

The list could go on. My goal here is merely to describe the different economic policy schools that are out there, and to emphasize my favorite, the one least represented by the current presidential candidates.

Government is really bad at rigging or softening competition. It can do some good when it helps people compete.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

-- August 5, 2004, at the signing ceremony for a $417 billion defense spending bill (H.R. 4613)

What if our mercenaries turn on us?

By Chris Hedges
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sun, Jun. 03, 2007

Armed units from the private security firm Blackwater USA opened fire in Baghdad streets twice in two days last week. It triggered a standoff between the security contractors and Iraqi forces, a reminder that the war in Iraq may be remembered mostly in our history books for empowering and building America's first modern mercenary army.

There are an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 armed security contractors working in Iraq, although there are no official figures and some estimates run much higher. Security contractors are not counted as part of the coalition forces. When the number of private mercenary fighters is added to other civilian military "contractors" who carry out logistical support activities such as food preparation, the number rises to about 126,000.

"We got 126,000 contractors over there, some of them making more than the secretary of defense," said House defense appropriations subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D., Pa.). "How in the hell do you justify that?"

The privatization of war hands an incentive to American corporations, many with tremendous political clout, to keep us mired down in Iraq. But even more disturbing is the steady rise of this modern Praetorian Guard. The Praetorian Guard in ancient Rome was a paramilitary force that defied legal constraints, made violence part of the political discourse, and eventually plunged the Roman Republic into tyranny and despotism. Despotic movements need paramilitary forces that operate outside the law, forces that sow fear among potential opponents, and are capable of physically silencing those branded by their leaders as traitors. And in the wrong hands, a Blackwater could well become that force.

American taxpayers have so far handed a staggering $4 billion to "armed security" companies in Iraq such as Blackwater, according to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.). Tens of billions more have been paid to companies that provide logistical support. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.) of the House Intelligence Committee estimates that 40 cents of every dollar spent on the occupation has gone to war contractors. It is unlikely that any of these corporations will push for an early withdrawal. The profits are too lucrative.

Mercenary forces like Blackwater operate beyond civilian and military law. They are covered by a 2004 edict passed by American occupation authorities in Iraq that immunizes all civilian contractors in Iraq from prosecution.

Blackwater, barely a decade old, has migrated from Iraq to set up operations in the United States and nine other countries. It trains Afghan security forces and has established a base a few miles from the Iranian border. The huge contracts from the war - including $750 million from the State Department since 2004 - have allowed Blackwater to amass a fleet of more than 20 aircraft, including helicopter gunships. Jeremy Scahill, the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, points out that Blackwater has also constructed "the world's largest private military facility - a 7,000-acre compound near the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina." Blackwater also recently opened a facility in Illinois ("Blackwater North") and, despite local opposition, is moving ahead with plans to build another huge training base near San Diego. The company recently announced it was creating a private intelligence branch called "Total Intelligence."

Erik Prince, who founded and runs Blackwater, is a man who appears to have little time for the niceties of democracy. He has close ties with the radical Christian Right and the Bush White House. He champions his company as a patriotic extension of the U.S. military. His employees, in an act as cynical as it is dishonest, take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution. But what he and his allies have built is a mercenary army, paid for with government money, which operates outside the law and without constitutional constraint.

Mercenary units are a vital instrument in the hands of despotic movements. Communist and fascist movements during the last century each built rogue paramilitary forces. And the appearance of Blackwater fighters, heavily armed and wearing their trademark black uniforms, patrolling the streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, may be a grim taste of the future. In New Orleans Blackwater charged the government $240,000 a day.

" 'It cannot happen here' is always wrong," the philosopher Karl Popper wrote. "A dictatorship can happen anywhere."

The word contractor helps launder the fear and threat out of a more accurate term: "paramilitary force." We're not supposed to have such forces in the United States, but we now do. And if we have them, we have a potential threat to democracy. On U.S. soil, Blackwater so far has shown few signs of being an out-and-out rogue retainer army, though they looked the part in New Orleans. But were this country to become even a little less stable, outfits like Blackwater might see a heyday. If the United States falls into a period of instability caused by another catastrophic terrorist attack, an economic meltdown that triggers social unrest, or a series of environmental disasters, such paramilitary forces, protected and assisted by fellow ideologues in the police and military, could ruthlessly abolish what is left of our eroding democracy. War, with the huge profits it hands to corporations, and to right-wing interests such as the Christian Right, could become a permanent condition. And the thugs with automatic weapons, black uniforms and wraparound sunglasses who appeared on the streets in New Orleans could appear on our streets.


Chris Hedges ( is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and won a Pulitzer Prize as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He is author, mostly recently, of "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America."

The Middle Eastern Imperative

International Herald Tribune
June 6, 2007


On the 40th anniversary of Israel's capture of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, at a time when a Middle East peace appears more distant than ever, world leaders gathering for the G-8 summit have an obligation to move beyond tired formulas that have become an excuse for inaction.

Endless self-justification on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, combined with an abject lack of leadership from the White House, have produced a paralysis that comforts the radicals in both camps and so threatens the viability of a two-state solution.

I know Washington is one-crisis town - and that crisis is Iraq. I know the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert is weak. I know the Palestinian national movement is lacerated by the battles of Fatah and Hamas. I know the Bush administration is beleaguered. Plenty of reasons there to say this is no time for a new initiative.

Israelis have become very adept at saying we have no interlocutor; we face a Hamas movement bent on our destruction; we withdrew from Lebanon and got Hezbollah; we withdrew from Gaza and got daily rockets; and we know what the Palestinians say about us in their school textbooks.

Palestinians have grown slick about telling Israel and the West that you told us to hold an election and we did; you told us to form a democratic government and we did; you know that government represents over 90 percent of the Palestinian people; and yet you will not talk to us.

Such endless, and fruitless, finger-pointing suggests there's limited point in trying again to tackle this bottomless pit of a conflict.

But time is running out on both sides. Palestinians are not served by an impasse because their 59-year struggle for a national homeland is getting hijacked by Islamic fundamentalists using the mirage of Palestine to further a war to the death with the West.

As Dennis Ross, the former U.S. negotiator in the region, told me: "A national conflict you can solve, a religious one you cannot."

Israelis are not served because their dream of a stable Jewish and democratic state, imbued with the moral values of Judaism, depends on getting out of the West Bank, where the Arab demographic tide is against them. Only thus will the corrosive influence of the 40-year experience of lording over another people be terminated and a Jewish democracy assured.

So what to do? The first requirement is American leadership of the intensity displayed by Henry Kissinger in his 1970s shuttle diplomacy. Somebody - Condoleezza Rice, or Tony Blair after he leaves office - has to knock heads together day after day. A 30-day sojourn in the area would be a start.

The second requirement is for the United States to call in chips from its Arab allies. It should get far more leverage from the Riyadh Arab initiative, which reiterated the offer of recognition of Israel in return for a withdrawal to 1967 borders.

The rise of Shiite Iran has not turned moderate Sunni Arab states into Zionists, but it has readied them for an accommodation with Israel. The fact that most of the Arab world no longer questions Israel's existence represents what Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S ambassador to Israel, called "a cosmic shift."

Rice should exploit this shift. She must prod Arabs to aid Fatah against Hamas and reinforce Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Short of recognition, high-level visits or the opening of business offices in Israel could signal Arab support for a genuine peace process. Egypt must stop smugglers getting weapons to Hamas in Gaza.

The third requirement is to get substantive talks going between Olmert and Abbas. The we-can't-talk-because-of-Hamas canard has to be overcome. Israel's partner in past peace talks has been the Palestine Liberation Organization. Abbas heads the PLO and Hamas is not a constituent member. Bingo.

These talks, overseen by the United States with other Quartet members (Russia, the EU, the United Nations), should center on achieving a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank by the end of the Bush presidency. That is ambitious. Only ambition will move things.

A Palestinian state can exist short of a final settlement - and should. The frontiers of the United States have changed since it came into being; so have Israel's. Statehood is the first step to responsibility.

Short of finality, but beyond current trivia, there is room for inventiveness in the name of Israeli dignity, now compromised by power, and Palestinian dignity, now compromised by powerlessness.


RCTV and Freedom of Speech in Venezuela

by Gregory Wilpert
June 04, 2007

As far as world public opinion is concerned, as reflected in the international media, the pronouncements of freedom of expression groups, and of miscellaneous governments, Venezuela has finally taken the ultimate step to prove its opposition right: that Venezuela is heading towards a dictatorship. Judging by these pronouncements, freedom of speech is becoming ever more restricted in Venezuela as a result of the non-renewal of the broadcast license of the oppositional TV network RCTV. With RCTV going off the air at midnight of May 27th, the country’s most powerful opposition voice has supposedly been silenced.

It is generally taken for granted that any silencing of opposition voices is anti-freedom of speech. But is an opposition voice really being silenced? Is this the correct metaphor? Is the director of RCTV, Marcel Granier, actually being silenced? No, a better metaphor is that the megaphone that Granier (and others) used for the exercise of his free speech is being returned to its actual owners – a megaphone that he had borrowed, but never owned. Not only that, he is still allowed to use a smaller megaphone (cable & satellite).

In other words, the radio frequency that RCTV used for over half a century is being returned to its original owners—the Venezuelan people—under the management of its democratically elected leadership. Still, while the decision about how to use the airwaves might be the prerogative of the government (as many critics concede), critics of the move have a point when they complain that the freedom to use the airwaves cannot be solely a matter of majority rule. After all, shouldn’t minorities (in this case a mostly relatively wealthy minority) also have access to the megaphone, so it may use it to convince the majority of its point-of-view? At least, progressives who defend the rights of traditionally disenfranchised minorities would argue that minorities should always have access to the media.[1] Even though Marcel Granier and his friends cannot be considered to be a disenfranchised minority, surely this minority deserves to be heard in the media, at least a little bit, in the name of pluralism.

Chavez supporters concede the validity of this argument in that they counter by pointing out that the opposition still has plenty of broadcast frequencies to present its point-of-view. Their argument for the justness of the decision to let RCTV’s license expire for good is that, first, the opposition still has plenty of other media outlets to broadcast its views, second, RCTV is a subversive and law-breaking broadcaster (because it participated in the coup and oil industry shutdown, among other things), and third, it needs to make way for a new public service television channel that is mandated by the constitution. Let us briefly examine each of these arguments, starting with Venezuela’s media landscape.

Venezuela’s Media Landscape

As with most questions about Venezuela, there is almost complete disagreement about what Venezuela’s media landscape looks like. According to the opposition, Chavez already controls most of the broadcast media, either directly, though state ownership or sponsorship, or indirectly, via supposedly repressive media laws. According to Chavez supporters, though, the opposition controls 95% of all media.

The problem is, there are several different angles from which one can examine a media landscape, which is why one can reach quite different conclusions about what this landscape actually looks like. First, one could examine it solely from the perspective of who owns or controls different media outlets. Second, one can look at which types of media outlets reach the population. And, third, one can look at what people end up watching or listening to.

In the first case, of who owns the media outlets—an analysis Chavez supporters tend to use—it is quite clear that a vast majority of television stations, radio stations, and newspapers are privately owned. Here, indeed, Chavez supporters are correct when they say that 95% of all media outlets (TV, radio, and print) are privately owned and that a significant majority of these are more sympathetic with the opposition than with Chavez and his government.[2]

In the second type of analysis, which opposition sympathizers tend to prefer, we look at which types of stations have the most potential to reach Venezuelans. Here it is generally said that the two stations with the largest national reach are channel 2 (formerly RCTV now TVes) and channel 8 (the government controlled VTV). The private national stations Venevisión, Televen, and Globovisión have a far more limited range, since they are broadcast mainly in larger population centers.[3] Obviously, private local channels and community channels don’t reach beyond their locality, but community TV stations are beginning to rival private TV stations in number. Looked at this way, it would seem that in terms of television broadcasting the government has acquired the definitive upper hand, with RCTV going off the air, its replacement by TVes, the strength of the government station, and the two dozen or so community television channels that for the most part sympathize with the government.

This picture shifts significantly, though, if we examine what people actually watch. According to studies that examine the audience share of the different types of television channels, only about five TV stations, a handful of radio stations, and a few newspapers are viewed, listened to, or read by most Venezuelans. That is, in television, RCTV and Venevisión are watched by about 60% of the viewing audience (RCTV about 35-40% and Venevisión about 20-25%). The remaining 40% are shared among the government station VTV (about 15-20%), Televen (around 10%), Globovisión (around 10%), cable channels, and various local channels.[4]

Given the political positions and the relative audience shares of the different media outlets, we can divide Venezuela’s media landscape into three categories of opposition, neutral or balanced, and pro-government. Before RCTV’s demise it looked as follows:

Opposition: 50-55%

RCTV: 35-40%

Globovisión: 10%

Private local: 5%

Neutral or balanced: 30-40%

Venevisión: 20-25%

Televen: 10-15%

Pro-government: 20-25%

VTV: 15-20%

Other (Telesur, Vive, Community): 5%

Now, in the post-RCTV era there is indeed a significant shift, so that the media landscape could look as follows, if, as promised, TVes (RCTV’s replacement) does not become a pro-government channel, but is neutral.

Opposition: 15%

Globovisión: 10%

Private Local: 5%

Neutral/balanced: 30-40% or more

Venevisión: 20-25%

Televen: 10-15%

TVes: ??%

Pro-government: 20-25%

VTV: 15-20%

Other: 5%

In other words, the ratio of opposition-oriented to government-oriented television changed from about 50:25 (or 2:1) in favor of the opposition to 15:25 (or 1:1.7) in favor of the government in terms of audience share. In most countries in the world, where the media is not democratically controlled, any opposition would be overjoyed by having such a ratio. In Venezuela, of course, where the opposition is used to having ruled the country for four decades, such a disadvantage is an intolerable encroachment on their “freedom of speech.”

However, there are three unknowns that could change the ratio in favor of the opposition. First, those who used to watch RCTV might very well watch more Globovisión, thus increasing their share of the audience. Second, Venevisión could very well become more oppositional, now that many opposition supporters are looking for a new home. There are already first indications that this will happen, according to a recent news report in the weekly newspaper Quinto Dia.[5] And third, many lovers of RCTV who want to continue watching it but did not have cable access, might, if they can afford it, switch to cable to watch RCTV. Thus, if Globovisión’s audience share increases, if Venevisión moves back into the oppositional column, and if RCTV continues to attract a large audience on cable,[6] then the opposition to pro-government balance in the Television media could easily swing to at last 1:1.

If you look at audience shares in the newspaper market or in radio, it is still far more favorable for the opposition than for the government. Many Chavez supporters say that the country’s largest newspaper, Últimas Noticias, is a Chavista newspaper, but if you look at the newspaper’s content and at its columnists, it is actually the most balanced newspaper in Venezuela, with government criticism and praise equally present. The second and third largest newspapers (El Universal and El Nacional), plus a good majority of smaller ones are all solidly in the opposition camp. The situation is even more lopsided among radio stations, where the pro-government share of radio audience (RNV, YVKE, and community radio) makes up a far smaller share than the opposition-oriented radio stations.

Thus, to argue that pluralism of views in Venezuela has been diminished by RCTV’s going off the air completely misses the reality of Venezuela’s media landscape. More than that, by defending the right of RCTV to broadcast, one is actually just defending the right of the country’s minority to continue its privileged place in the media landscape.

RCTV’s Rights and Responsibilities

Now that we have examined the arguments about whether RCTV’s going off the air represents a threat to media pluralism and thus to freedom of expression, we can turn to the other two arguments for and against RCTV: that RCTV deserves to lose its license due to its past actions and that it needs to make room for a new public Television Channel.

This is not the place to detail the numerous accusations against RCTV that the government has made, such as RCTV’s participation in the 2002 coup attempt, in the 2002-3 oil industry shutdown, and its violations of the country’s broadcasting regulations.[7] These facts are generally uncontested. Rather, what is contested is that these acts can justify the non-renewal of a broadcast license when another broadcaster, such as Venevisión, committed the same violations, but whose license was renewed on May 27th. In other words, on what legal grounds was RCTV’s license not renewed, but Venevisión’s license was, if they committed the same violations? According to RCTV, political discrimination is the only answer because RCTV’s hard-line opposition to the government continued, while Venevisión became neutral in Venezuela’s political conflict.[8]

To fend off this accusation of discrimination and that RCTV is being punished for crimes that have never been proven in court, the government argues that RCTV’s non-renewal is not a punishment at all. Rather, RCTV’s license expiration provides an excellent opportunity for the government to launch a public service television station, in compliance with a constitutional mandate.[9] At a later point Telecommunications Minister Jesse Chacón explained that RCTV (and not Venevisión) was chosen for non-renewal because RCTV’s VHF channel 2 is better suited for public service TV because channel 2 has the better reception throughout the country.

In theory, though, it might still be possible for RCTV to reverse the license renewal once the full Supreme Court trial concludes with a decision in favor of RCTV, on the basis that either discrimination or that due process were violated. If this is the case, then the government might have to hold public hearings in which an objective analysis is made as to which of the three channels that are up for license renewal (RCTV, Venevisión, and VTV) needs to make room for TVes.

In any case, RCTV and the opposition have once again bungled the political situation. Instead of challenging Chavez in the political arena, they focused exclusively on legal challenges, international appeals, and confrontation. They could have organized a consultative (non-binding) referendum back in January, right after it was clear that Chavez would not renew RCTV’s license. Polls indicated that the up to 70% of Venezuelans did not want RCTV to go off the air. With only 10% of registered voters’ signatures the Electoral Council would have been forced to convoke a referendum on the issue. If the polls are accurate, the opposition would have won that referendum easily, thereby embarrassing Chavez and perhaps forcing him to renew RCTV’s license. Maybe this course of action did not occur to anyone in the opposition, but more likely is that they prefer to challenge Chavez in the legal and international arenas and on the streets than politically because actions that use Venezuela’s democratic processes would legitimate a political system that the opposition continuously decries as a dictatorship and whose ultimate goal it is to de-legitimate.

Diversification and Democratization of the Media?

While the legal challenge to the non-renewal of RCTV’s license could have some merit, particularly the charge that RCTV is being discriminated against vis-á-vis Venevisión, what about the government’s goal of diversifying and democratizing the country’s media landscape? Do the government’s media policies contribute to diversification and democratization of the media?

With regard to diversification and democratization, the Chavez government has arguably done more than any government in Venezuelan history or in the history of most countries of the world. Enabling hundreds of community radio stations and of dozens of community television stations gives ordinary citizens access to the media in an unprecedented manner. The opposition, of course, calls these community media outlets “Chavez controlled,” but there is no evidence for this. Indeed, most of these media outlets (by no means all) are located in poor neighborhoods, where Chavez support is strong. However, criticism of national, state, and local governments is very common and these outlets provide a form of citizen accountability that can contribute to better governance.

Also, the creation of several new, certainly pro-government, Television outlets contributes to a diversification of the media landscape. Important in this regard is the launch of Vive TV, which focuses on communal issues and problems throughout the country, and of ANTV, the television channel of the National Assembly. ANTV allows Venezuelans (who receive cable) to observe the debates in the National Assembly, thus further enhancing democratic oversight over the country’s political processes.

Venezuela’s Law on Social Responsibility in Television and Radio has, despite opposition criticism, also contributed to the diversification of the media landscape, in that it mandates that five hours per day (between 5am and 11pm) be produced by independent national producers, with no single producer contributing more than 20% of this.[10] Thousands of independent producers have already registered with a national registry for their participation in this requirement.

Opposition critics say that the social responsibility law limits freedom of expression because it punishes the broadcasting of messages that are discriminatory, promote violence, promote the breaking of laws, or of “secret messages.”[11] However, despite all of the anti-government broadcasting that has taken place since this law went into effect, no broadcaster has been called to task for violating these provisions. Also, most of these provisions are standard broadcast regulations in most countries in the world.

Finally, the government’s most recent measure of creating Venezuelan Social Television (TVes, pronounced “te ves” or “you see yourself”) could indeed be a move towards democratizing and diversifying Venezuelan broadcast media, if the channel is truly independent of the government. So far, though, the board of directors has been named by the president and the channel’s funding comes from the central government. Even if the board does not receive any direction from the president, as long as it is named by the president, it cannot be considered independent. The government has promised, though, that this is merely a temporary arrangement and that later on the board and the financing of the channel will become truly independent. This issue notwithstanding, Venezuela’s independent television producers have applauded the new channel because it will broadcast almost entirely independent national productions – an important move that gives far more opportunity to Venezuelans to be heard on a national level than any other television channel provides.


While the decision not to renew RCTV’s license is still being challenged in court,[12] due to a possible violation of due process and equal treatment under the law, it is clear that the decision is legal to the extent that it is the prerogative of the state to decide which broadcasters are to receive licenses to use the airwaves,
maintains pluralism in Venezuela’s media landscape, does not violate principles of freedom of speech for Venezuelans, and contributes to the democratization of the country’s airwaves by granting more Venezuelans access to these than before, via the new television channel TVes.

It is thus very disappointing to see international human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Carter Center, and the Committee to Protect Journalists condemn the government’s decision. These groups, just as Venezuela’s opposition, claim that the decision sends a chilling effect on freedom of speech. This supposed chilling effect, though, has been invoked over and over again by the government’s critics, but they have yet to point to a single instance of a story or a criticism that has not been aired due to this supposed effect. Globovisión continues to be as critical of the government as ever, just as the country’s most important newspapers and radio programs – arguably some of the most critical in the western hemisphere. RCTV, when it comes back via cable, will, no doubt, also continue to be as critical as ever. In effect, the groups that condemn Venezuela’s sovereign decision to change the way its airwaves are used are defending the right of corporate media to use the airwaves, to the detriment of the poor majority, who prior to Chavez have never had access to the country’s corporate-controlled media complex. Ideally, all broadcast frequencies should be under collective democratic and not private control. That, however, will take more time and will receive far more condemnation by the world’s establishment.

Appendix: Who Controls Which Channel and What they Show

Looking only at the channels that significant numbers of people watch, it makes sense to examine the political orientations of the most widely watched outlets. RCTV clearly is/was the most popular and also one of the most anti-Chavez TV stations. In the days leading up to and during the 2002 coup, the 2002-3 oil industry shutdown, and the August 2004 recall referendum RCTV had nearly constant anti-Chavez news coverage and advertisements. However, between these periods and following the recall referendum, RCTV focused on its core business, which is entertainment programming, both from Hollywood and from Venezuela (mostly game shows and soaps). Its explicitly political programming was limited to its nightly news programs and one morning political talk show (La Entrevista with Miguel Angel Rodriguez).

RCTV is clearly part of Venezuela’s old elite, owned by one of the country’s richest families, the Phelps family, which also owns soap and food production and construction companies. Eliado Lares, the president of RCTV, is related to Henry Ramos Allup, the Secretary General of the former governing party Acción Democrática (AD). Lares played an important role in ensuring that RCTV’s concession was renewed in 1987, when it almost lost its license during the presidency of Jaime Lusinchi, due to RCTV director Marcel Granier’s fights with Lusinchi. Granier himself came into directing RCTV and its parent company 1BC, due to his marriage with Dorothy Phelps, one of the heirs to the Phelps fortune.[13]

The second-most watched channel is Venevisión, which belongs to Gustavo Cisneros, the Cuban-Venezuelan media mogul, who is one of the world’s richest men and owns about 70 media outlets in 39 countries, including the Spanish-language network Univisión in the U.S. Also, he owns countless food distribution companies. There has always been a strong rivalry between Granier and Cisneros, since both are said to have presidential aspirations. Ironically, their two families are closely linked via marriage, because Cisneros is married to Patricia Phelps, the sister of Granier’s wife Dorothy.

Venevisión itself was just as, if not more, involved in the April 2002 coup attempt because it had exclusive interviews with coup plotters and actually filmed some of the key footage that was later used to falsely claim that Chavez supporters were shooting at unarmed opposition demonstrators. It was also actively involved in the oil industry shutdown, urging people to participate in a general strike via thousands of public service announcements, just as RCTV did.

However, this channel changed its tune in June 2004, two months before the August 15, 2004 recall referendum against Chavez, in which Chavez and Cisneros agreed to a media cease-fire between the two that was brokered by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Officially, the two agreed to “honor constitutional processes and to support future conversations between the government of Venezuela and the media…”[14] According to some reports, Cisneros had actually agreed to tone down his anti-Chavez propaganda in return for Chavez’s help with introducing Cisneros to Brazil’s President Lula.[15] Chavez, though, denied that any kind of pact had been made other than what was in the official statement. Still, Venevisión removed its political talk show “24” with Napoleon Bravo, one of the most strident anti-Chavistas on Television and its news programs became more balanced.

The next most important channel, in terms of reaching the population, is the government’s VTV station, which has been a state channel for most of Venezuela’s democratic history. Its programming is controlled quite directly by the executive, which names its director. As such, it is not a public broadcasting channel as in many European countries, which tend to be more independent of the government. Most of VTV’s programming is quite political, with many pro-government public service announcements and political talk shows in which government representatives or supporters predominate.

Televen, is one of the country’s newer channels, broadcasting since 1988. Unlike most of the other channels, it has always been slightly more neutral in Venezuela’s media wars, except that it once employed Marta Colomina for its morning talk show, one of the country’s most strident anti-Chavistas after Napoleon Bravo. Her program was taken off the air, though, following the 2004 recall referendum and the channel became far more balanced and now strives to invite as many government supporters as opponents for its political talk shows. Its economic interests are not as well defined as those of RCTV, Venevisión, and Globovisión because, unlike the other three, it is not affiliated with quite as large private economic interest groups.

Finally, there is Globovisión, which, as a 24-hour news and opinion channel has a political importance that far exceeds the size of its audience and its potential broadcasting reach. One of Venezuela’s newest channels, it was founded in 1994 by Alberto Federico Ravell (its director), Guillermo Zuloaga, and Nelson Mezerhane, who all belong to Venezuela’s upper crust, with Zuloaga coming from one of Venezuela’s richest families (who is also related to Ana corina Machado, one of the directors of the opposition NGO Súmate). While Globovisión’s UHF reach is limited, covering only three major cities, it does have cooperation agreements with numerous local private stations, so that it does reach most larger population centers over the airwaves. Politically, Globovisión is as opposition-oriented as a Television station could possibly be, broadcasting anti-government opinions and analysis 24 hours a day.

The other pro-government channels, such as most (but by no means all) community television stations, Vive, Telesur, and ANTV (National Assembly Television) all have extremely limited viewership according to the rating studies, so that these can be safely dismissed for the purposes of this analysis. The same goes for the opposition-oriented private local stations.



[1] Although, many progressives would argue that extreme right-wing views, which are racist or fascist, should not have access to the airwaves, even if a majority were to hold them. In many places it is actually illegal for such views to be broadcast under any circumstances. This is one of the reasons some say RCTV does not deserve a license.

[2] More specifically, only three or TV channels broadcast via antenna out of over 200 are state owned (VTV, Vive, and Avila TV), only two out of 426 radio stations, and no daily newspapers. In each category, the privately owned outlets are overwhelmingly (perhaps around 80%) pro-opposition and anti-Chavez.

[3] Also, there are a few national specialty broadcasters, such as Vale TV, an educational channel, Meridiano, a sports channel, Puma, a music channel, and La Tele, an entertainment channel.

[4] Audience shares found in an El Nacional article of May 27, 2007. The percentages are given in ranges because different studies have slightly different results.

[5] “This happened with journalists and actors [of Venevisión]. They decided to complain about the editorial line of the Cisneros channel and got authorization to not just attend the demonstrations or to express their solidarity [with RCTV employees] in any other channel, but could now do it from their own screen.” J.A. Almenar, “Exclusivas de última pagina,” Quinto Día, June 1-8, 2007.

[6] Information on how many households receive cable or satellite TV is difficult to come by, but judging by the number of illegal cable connections that are said to exist and the number of DirecTV dishes (many with illegal decoders) in the barrios, it could be safe to guess that nearly half of Venezuelan households receive cable or satellite TV.

[7] For information on these acts of RCTV, see: Cartoon Coup D’Etat , Venezuela, RCTV, And Media Freedom: Just The Facts, Please , and the Libro Blanco (Spanish PDF) published by the Ministry of Communication and Information

[8] The May 23rd decision of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, in which RCTV’s court injunction against the license non-renewal was rejected, but a trial about the issue was allowed, could leave a challenge open in this regard. The court merely states that RCTV failed to provide evidence for unequal treatment, but does not say that there was no unequal treatment. See: Supreme Tribunal of Justice Decision of May 23, 2007 (in Spanish) or Supreme Court Allows RCTV Case to Proceed, but Station Must Go off Air for a summary of the decision.

[9] See section IV, No. 2 of the May 23rd Supreme Court decision (in Spanish)

[10] Article 14, Ley de responsabilidad social en radio y televisión (Resorte)

[11] Article 28, No. 4 u-z, Ley Resorte

[12] The decision is being challenged not only in Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice, but will also be tried by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights.

[13] See:

[14] According to the Carter Center statement released after the meeting.

[15] See: “Venezuela’s Murdoch” by Richard Gott, New Left Review, May-June 2006


“JFK plot”: Is Washington trying to open a Caribbean front in war on terror?

By Bill Van Auken
7 June 2007

Last weekend’s scare headlines and breathless broadcast reports about the unspeakable horrors that were supposedly foiled with the uncovering of the “JFK plot” have largely faded from view as evidence mounts that the alleged threat was grossly hyped—if not totally invented—by US authorities.

The purported plan to ignite a massive chain reaction of explosions by planting a bomb beside one of the jet fuel tanks at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, or at a section of the pipelines leading into the facility was, experts noted, a physical impossibility.

One law enforcement official told Newsday that he “cringed” when the Brooklyn federal prosecutor spoke of the “unthinkable” devastation that had been prevented with the disruption of the plot. “The plot, he knew, was never operational,” the paper reported. “The public had never been at risk.”

The man referred to improbably as the plot’s “mastermind,” Russell Defreitas, a 63-year-old naturalized US citizen from Guyana, was described by friends and neighbors as someone who eked out a living selling incense and collecting welfare, and was periodically homeless. Those who knew him were incredulous about the tale told in the federal indictment, pointing out that he was someone who had difficulty starting his own car, much less planting high explosives on pipelines.

In short, the profile fit all the characteristics of a classic patsy in a government-organized conspiracy. As in so many other of these supposed “plots”—Fort Dix, Miami, Albany—the only figure that seemed to have the single-minded determination and organizational abilities to create a “conspiracy” that could be documented through emails, recordings and videotapes was an individual known to the public only as “the source”—a paid informant of the FBI.

The three men named as Defreitas’s co-conspirators in the alleged plot—two Guyanese and one Trinidadian—are all in the custody of the authorities in Trinidad. The last of them turned himself in on Tuesday. Abdel Nur, 57, described in some published accounts as a drug user, poor and with no steady means of support, told reporters as he was led handcuffed into a Port-of-Spain court, “It’s a conspiracy, there was a setup.” He added, “America never did nothing [to me].”

The government of Trinidad would be fully justified in denying the US request for extradition of the three named suspects in its custody on the grounds that they face a real threat of torture if they are turned over to American authorities.

This was precisely the grounds invoked—with far less justification—by Washington for its rejection of Venezuela’s request for the extradition of Luis Posada Carilles, the anti-communist terrorist and long-time CIA agent, wanted for the 1976 terrorist bombing of a Cuban jetliner carrying passengers from Venezuela, in which 73 people were killed. Eleven of those who died in that attack were citizens of Guyana.

The daughter of another of the suspects, meanwhile, went before the press in Port-of-Spain to defend the innocence of her 62-year-old father, Amir Kareem Ibrahiim, a Trinidadian, and his friend and fellow Shiite Muslim, Abdul Kabir, 57, a former member of the Guyanese parliament.

Speaking in the name of the close-knit Shiite community in the two neighboring countries, Huda Ibrahiim insisted that her father and Kabir were the victims of US government entrapment by the FBI’s paid informant, named as “the source” in the federal indictment.

“That source is the only person culpable of any of the activities mentioned in the complaint,” she charged. “That source visited our brothers with the specific intent to entrap them in activities they know nothing about, never agreed to, and did not participate in.”

Huda, 20, said that the FBI’s informant had posed as a visiting Islamic missionary from the US when he visited the homes of Kadir and Ibrahiim.

Kadir’s wife earlier told Kaieteur News in Guyana, “We are shocked, we are not part of these things. To begin with, we are not al Qaeda ... we are Shia. My husband is a decent, devoted, intelligent Muslim. Both of us have relatives in the United States. It would be nonsensical for him to plot something like this.”

The jailed man’s daughter also suggested a political motive for the apparent exercise in entrapment. “We believe that the persons responsible for the arrest of our brothers are doing it for a purpose other than the protection of the people and interests of the USA,” she said.

She continued, “They have apparently done so in the interest of shoring up a lame duck presidency and increasing the lame chances of the Republican Party being returned to power in November 2008.”

Huda Ibrahiim’s reasoning is sound. There is a distinct odor of frame-up and state provocation emanating from the “JFK plot” involving four alleged conspirators whose average age is 60 and who had neither any known terrorist ties nor any apparent ability to pull off a bombing attack.

The type of hysteria that the government, aided and abetted by the media, attempts to generate with the springing of such “plots” on the public serves a definite political purpose. That is to intimidate political opposition, to justify anti-democratic measures like the Patriot Act as well as practices such as the torture and rendition of those deemed “enemy combatants,” and, finally, to divert public attention from the deepening debacle in Iraq.

There may well be another political motive behind this latest FBI informant-driven “terror plot.” While the hyped tale of barely avoided mayhem at JFK may have faded from the front pages of the American press, the so-called plot is still big news in the Caribbean, and for good reason.

An underlying theme in the presentation of the indictment and the announcement of the arrests is that Washington has decided to target the region as a new front in its “global war on terror.”

This came through clearly in the statements made by New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, whose department collaborates intimately with the FBI and has brought into its hierarchy as head of intelligence the CIA’s former director of operations, David Cohen.

Kelly told the media that the plot was “different in its distinct ties to the Caribbean, a region that is rarely thought of in terms of terrorism but of increasing concern to us as a crucible in the foment of Islamic radicalism.”

Kelly’s comments were widely echoed by government officials, security agency sources and the US mass media. The Caribbean has a “potential for extremism,” declared Homeland Security spokesman William Knocke.

Others have fleshed out this “potential” by describing the region as ripe for terrorist recruiting because of the widespread poverty in Caribbean nations, a feature that they share in common with the vast majority of the planet.

Others, such as Richard Miniter, the right-wing ideologue who passes himself off as a “terrorism expert” are sounding the same note: “This investigation takes us in a new direction where we don’t have to just worry about threats from the Middle East, Afghanistan and so on, but from the Caribbean ...”

Meanwhile, the New York Daily News, one of the newspapers that sensationalized the “JFK plot,” published an article Monday entitled “Radicalism heating up in the Caribbean.”

It warned, “From Argentina to Haiti, the rise of radical Islam in the Caribbean and Latin America is alarming US counterterror officials and leaders in the region, who say the JFK bomb plot should be a wakeup call.”

The article went so far as to quote “senior counterterrorism officials” as expressing the concern that Islamists could turn Trinidad “into another Mogadishu.” Given that, according to the latest available census data, Muslims account for less than 6 percent of the population, this scenario sounds more than a bit far-fetched.

A “top counterterror manager” is quoted as saying, “The threat in South America is growing. Lebanese Hezbollah is gaining a real foothold there.”

This and similar scaremongering accounts in the media likewise link the supposed Caribbean “Islamic threat” to the friction between Washington and the government of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. One of the arrested suspects, Abdul Kadir, was arrested after Trinidad authorities stopped a flight he was on bound for Venezuela, where he was to pick up a visa and fly on to Teheran for a conference.

Much has been made in these accounts of the friendly ties established between the Venezuelan and Iranian government, suggesting that the link is a foundation for a new axis of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.

Under conditions in which Washington is escalating its threats and provocations against the two countries—both of which boast what are among the largest reserves of oil in the world—the political and geo-strategic motivation for hyping a terrorist threat emanating from the Caribbean becomes clear.

Just as the “war on terror” has been used as the pretext for the war to conquer Iraq, so too it can be employed for future US military interventions aimed at laying hold of the oil fields of Venezuela and Iran.

See Also:

The JFK “plot”: another grossly inflated threat [5 June 2007]

British terror trial raises question of what MI5 knew about 2005 London bombings [9 May 2007]

The Miami indictments: Manufacturing “terror” as a means of intimidation [28 June 2006]

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