2007 - %3, February

Ahmad Chalabi Breaks My Spirit

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 2:51 PM EST

Like a monster that will not die, Ahmad Chalabi is back in the headlines. Apparently everyone's favorite Iraqi troublemaker has gotten himself a job leading the implementation of the surge from the Iraqi end. Story from the subscription-only Wall Street Journal site here, excerpts here.

I won't even bother with this, because I trust all of you know Chalabi's sordid history and because I've spent more brain-hours thinking about Chalabi in the last year than I care to count. But if you want to know why working with this character is bad, bad, bad idea for the American government, see all of the Chalabi entries in the Mother Jones Iraq War Timeline.

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Few Weeks of Anonymity Doom Presidential Campaign, Vilsack Goes Back to Lifetime of Anonymity

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 2:14 PM EST

We've all been a bit harsh on presidential candidate and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (Wonkette refers to him as "Tim Pete Tom Vilsack") because of his lack of name recognition, charisma, any chance at all of winning the nomination, etc.

Well, apparently we got to him. Vilsack decided that being the top presidential candidate from Iowa (but not the top candidate -- or even second -- in Iowa polls), was fun while it lasted but he's packing it in. Sadly, with the first candidate to exit the race also goes the most ambitious climate-change plan.

Newsweek: "Petraeus is Engaged in a Giant 'Do-Over.'"

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 1:37 PM EST

Scary, essential new reporting from Michael Hirsh of Newsweek:

Gen. David Petraeus's new "surge" plan is committing U.S. troops, day by day, to a much deeper and longer-term role in policing Iraq than since the earliest days of the U.S. occupation. How long must we stay under the Petraeus plan? Perhaps 10 years. At least five. In any case, long after George W. Bush has returned to Crawford, Texas, for good.

The previous general in Iraq, George Casey, was focusing on training Iraqi forces before he left his post, in a move designed to prep the country for an American departure. Under Casey's plan, reports Hirsh, "By 2008, the remaining 60,000 or so U.S. troops were supposed to be hunkering down in four giant 'superbases,' where they would be relatively safe." But under Petraeus's plan, the Army is setting up hundreds of "mini-forts" all over the country, right in the middle of some of the worst fighting. The idea that the Iraqis can take responsibility for their own security -- always a fallacy -- has been discarded. American servicemen and women are walking beats. The most dangerous beats in the world. "We're putting down roots," one former Army captain tells Hirsh.

This is the last thing Democrats -- who are trying to decide which way, not if, they are going end the war, both in Congress and if they were to take the White House in 2008 -- want to hear. Could the disconnect between what candidates are saying on the trail and what is happening on the ground in Iraq be any greater?

But ignore that for a second. It's like the 2006 elections never happened. In their rhetoric, members of the Administration acknowledge that politically, they can't get away with another long-term go at achieving stability in Iraq: the people have spoken, and they won't have it. For example, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked at a congressional hearing how long the surge was expected to last, he said, "I think for most of us, in our minds, we're thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years."

But the fact of the matter is that Petraeus has gone ahead and implemented a long-term strategy that is useless if we cut it off in one year or even two. It doesn't pay dividends that quickly. Don't get me wrong: I see the value in what Petraeus is doing. It's the proper way to fight an insurgency. But really, it's the proper way to prevent an insurgency, and the well-intentioned Petraeus and his genius-club of advisors are at least two years late to the scene. (An aside: "Civil Affairs" teams are a little-known part of the military. They are commissioned to do what Petraeus has the whole Army doing, and if they had been used from the beginning of this war, we could have avoided this whole mess. For more, consider "Waging Peace" by veteran reporter Rob Schultheis. It's an excellent read and is totally relevant to discussions how wars like this one should be fought.)

In the end, I suspect this will prove the Powell Doctrine right yet again -- Bush's war in Iraq is one long, painful lesson on how right Powell was when he said that foreign wars should only be fought if we have a clearly defined objective and exit strategy, the support of the international community, and broad support amongst the American people. Before, we didn't have clearly defined objectives or an exit strategy. Now that we do, there is no support amongst the American people for what Petraeus is doing, and with Congress looking to redraw the 2002 war authorization in order to more narrowly define what American troops can be used for in Iraq... it looks like even this worthy new plan from a worthy new general is just another path that ends in failure.

Wilberforce Be With You: The Christian Right Claims Amazing Grace

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 1:28 PM EST
amazing.gif

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of slavery. But since Hollywood doesn't release new titles on Thursday, it's waiting until today to launch Amazing Grace, a new movie about 18th-century British abolitionist William Wilberforce. The flick, directed by Michael Apted (creator of the mesmerizing 7-Up documentary series) and produced by the studio that did The Chronicles of Narnia, is getting enthusiastic advance reviews. But nowhere is the film more highly anticipated than among conservative Christians, who see parallels between Wilberforce's moral battle and their faith-based campaign against sex trafficking. But Wilberforce's unlikely victory is also viewed as a metaphor for the Christian right's struggle to remake the culture. Presidential hopeful Sam Brownback was dubbed a "Wilberforce Republican" by the Economist, and has eagerly accepted the title. And check out this email appeal I recently received from Ted Baehr, who runs MovieGuide, an evangelical movie review site:

One man, William Wilberforce, was used by God to abolish the slave trade in England and bring about a reformation of manners.

Imagine what you and I can do together to redeem the media and save our culture! [...]

Because of Wilberforce's willingness to serve the Lord, a Victorian society where women and children were safe and where the Church was addressing social evils in creative ways saved a nation that was quickly falling into rampant paganism.

[...] you can help us bring about a moral reform in our nation that will set the captives free from the bondage and slavery of corrupt media.

This is the chance for the Church in our era to address social evils in creative ways!

Wilberforce has officially been recruited as a culture warrior. (BTW, MovieGuide gives Amazing Grace four stars, though it warns viewers that it contains "female cleavage.")

Of course, Wilberforce's story doesn't just resonate with religious conservatives. His against-the-odds struggle for social justice plucks liberal heartstrings as well—ours included. For a progressive interpretation of British abolitionism, see Mother Jones co-founder Adam Hochshild's most recent book, Bury the Chains, which argues that the anti-slavery movement was "the first great human-rights campaign." As Hochschild explained when I interviewed him:

In a time that feels politically grim, especially for anyone in the U.S. who cares about social justice, I hope people will take heart from a story of folks who started a campaign at a time when it looked even grimmer. The idea of ending slavery seemed totally utopian, crackpot, wildly too idealistic. But they succeeded. And they succeeded in 50 years, in the lifespan of some people [...] They went through some very grim times, one of them being the long wartime period like the one we're seeing now. Wartime is bad news for progressives, and it was the same thing [during the Napoleonic wars]. So I guess to the extent that it's possible for a book like this to have any effect, I would just like to see it have the effect of making people working for justice today feel heartened and to know that any big struggle will always be a long one with many setbacks.

I don't see anyone calling themselves "Wilberforce Democrats" any time soon, but that's no reason to let the right lay exlcusive claim to the legacy of abolitionism, or even Amazing Grace. So take a break from your usual pagan film fare and see if it lives up to the hype. (And for you history buffs/Afropop fans, it's your chance to see Youssou N'Dour's silver screen debut as Olaudah Equiano.)

Wilberforce Be With You: The Christian Right Claims Amazing Grace

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 1:28 PM EST
amazing.gif

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of slavery. But since Hollywood doesn't release new titles on Thursday, it's waiting until today to launch Amazing Grace, a new movie about 18th-century British abolitionist William Wilberforce. The flick, directed by Michael Apted (creator of the mesmerizing 7-Up documentary series) and produced by the studio that did The Chronicles of Narnia, is getting enthusiastic advance reviews. But nowhere is the film more highly anticipated than among conservative Christians, who see parallels between Wilberforce's moral battle and their faith-based campaign against sex trafficking. But Wilberforce's unlikely victory is also viewed as a metaphor for the Christian right's struggle to remake the culture. Presidential hopeful Sam Brownback was dubbed a "Wilberforce Republican" by the Economist, and has eagerly accepted the title. And check out this email appeal I recently received from Ted Baehr, who runs MovieGuide, an evangelical movie review site:

One man, William Wilberforce, was used by God to abolish the slave trade in England and bring about a reformation of manners.

Imagine what you and I can do together to redeem the media and save our culture! [...]

Because of Wilberforce's willingness to serve the Lord, a Victorian society where women and children were safe and where the Church was addressing social evils in creative ways saved a nation that was quickly falling into rampant paganism.

[...] you can help us bring about a moral reform in our nation that will set the captives free from the bondage and slavery of corrupt media.

This is the chance for the Church in our era to address social evils in creative ways!

Wilberforce has officially been recruited as a culture warrior. (BTW, MovieGuide gives Amazing Grace four stars, though it warns viewers that it contains "female cleavage.")

Of course, Wilberforce's story doesn't just resonate with religious conservatives. His against-the-odds struggle for social justice plucks liberal heartstrings as well—ours included. For a progressive interpretation of British abolitionism, see Mother Jones co-founder Adam Hochshild's most recent book, Bury the Chains, which argues that the anti-slavery movement was "the first great human-rights campaign." As Hochschild explained when I interviewed him:

In a time that feels politically grim, especially for anyone in the U.S. who cares about social justice, I hope people will take heart from a story of folks who started a campaign at a time when it looked even grimmer. The idea of ending slavery seemed totally utopian, crackpot, wildly too idealistic. But they succeeded. And they succeeded in 50 years, in the lifespan of some people [...] They went through some very grim times, one of them being the long wartime period like the one we're seeing now. Wartime is bad news for progressives, and it was the same thing [during the Napoleonic wars]. So I guess to the extent that it's possible for a book like this to have any effect, I would just like to see it have the effect of making people working for justice today feel heartened and to know that any big struggle will always be a long one with many setbacks.

I don't see anyone calling themselves "Wilberforce Democrats" any time soon, but that's no reason to let the right lay exlcusive claim to the legacy of abolitionism, or even Amazing Grace. So take a break from your usual pagan film fare and see if it lives up to the hype. (And for you history buffs/Afropop fans, it's your chance to see Youssou N'Dour's silver screen debut as Olaudah Equiano.)

What Do Jet Blue and Gavin Newsom Have in Common?

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 3:00 AM EST

They are both really, really good at apologies. (Jet Blue's here. Gavin's latest, in which CBS asks him about "the man code" here.)

I never had any doubts that Jet Blue could recover from its PR nightmare, for the simple fact that I fly cross country a fair bit on Jet Blue, and I haul my butt over to Oakland because their fares are lower, the flights are always, in my experience, on time, and I can indulge in 6 hours of HGTV if I care to do so. (Sadly, I do.) Gavin, I wasn't so sure (and by recovery here I mean: bid for Sacramento or Washington). But then I saw his "exclusive" interview (and most recent apology) with the local CBS affliate.

Damn, the man is good (though was it the lighting, or does he have a bald spot? Check the video).

He was frank, he managed to be funny, he hit a lot of demos (including dyslexics, like me!) without appearing to pander, he got away with saying "I am who I am" without sounding like Popeye...

Now granted, the interview had the fingerprints of Peter Ragone and Chris Lehane all over it, but Peter's sock puppet incident aside (Dude! didn't you learn the lesson of Lee Siegel? Though Ragone's lesson was a promotion. His boss' scandal hit just in time.), there's a reason why these guys, all three of them, are considered killers.

Gavin killed.

UPDATE: Check out the Wiki war on Gavin, specifically if dating a Scientologist reflects badly upon him. (On that subject, don't even get me started.) And let's hope Ragone's not indulging in any Wiki reverts.

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Billionaires Toast to Merrill Lynch Underwriting Coal-Fired Power Plants

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 10:06 PM EST

The Billionaires for Coal had a grand old time cavorting outside Merill Lynch in downtown San Francisco yesterday. Toasting with champagne glasses, tossing out one-liners, they sneered at a group of earnest, banner-waving protesters nearby. Just a few pairs of hipster sneakers and some scruffy facial hair poked out from under the Billionaires' suits, top hats, and cocktail dresses.

"Why travel to the tropics when we can bring the tropics to us?" asked Jodie van Horn. In real life she's an activist with Rainforest Action Network, but as a Billionaire she goes by Alata Monie. "We'll convert our winter properties to summer properties, and our summer properties to scuba properties."

Read the rest of this blog and more on The Blue Marble.

Chimps Hunt with Spears and Birds Plan for the Future as Science Debunks Myths of Human Uniqueness

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 9:15 PM EST

Two cherished illusions fall by the wayside. These belong to the smug category of talents that "make us human." Guess what, turns out these human attributes belong to chimpanzees. And birds. And probably for longer than we've owned them.

First up, tools to hunt prey. This is pure Homo sapiens, et ancestors, isn't it? Wrong. And, whoa, sacrilege of the most holies. Females and immatures turn out to be better hunters than the big boys. Check this out from Current Biology.

Although tool use is known to occur in species ranging from naked mole rats to owls, chimpanzees are the most accomplished tool users. The modification and use of tools during hunting, however, is still considered to be a uniquely human trait among primates. Here, we report the first account of habitual tool use during vertebrate hunting by nonhumans. At the Fongoli site in Senegal, we observed ten different chimpanzees use tools to hunt prosimian prey in 22 bouts. This includes immature chimpanzees and females, members of age-sex classes not normally characterized by extensive hunting behavior. Chimpanzees made 26 different tools, and we were able to recover and analyze 12 of these. Tool construction entailed up to five steps, including trimming the tool tip to a point. Tools were used in the manner of a spear, rather than a probe or rousing tool. This new information on chimpanzee tool use has important implications for the evolution of tool use and construction for hunting in the earliest hominids, especially given our observations that females and immature chimpanzees exhibited this behavior more frequently than adult males.

Translated: chimps build tools we call spears and use them to hunt specific nocturnal prey (bushbabies) that would otherwise be impossible to catch with the chimps' diurnal lifestyle. Oh, and again, the girls and kids do most of it and may well have invented it.

If that isn't humbling enough, how about birds that plan for the future? That's a struggle for even the college-educated human. In fact, based on our inability to solve those niggling global sustainability problems, you might conclude we can't do it at all. This from the University of Cambridge, where forethought is rewarded with publications in the journal Nature.

Some birds recognise the idea of 'future' and plan accordingly, researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered. According to their findings… western scrub-jays will store food items they believe will be in short supply in the future.

Planning for the future is a complex skill that was previously believed to be unique to humans. Other animals were perceived to be incapable of dissociating themselves from the present and any current motivation. Sometimes animals may appear to recognize future needs, but they are only exhibiting behaviors that are either instinctual (e.g. nest building) or prompted by immediate needs like hunger (e.g. food hoarding).

In order to determine whether some animals plan for future food needs or are simply acting on instinct, Professor Nicky Clayton and her team at the Department of Experimental Psychology tested the western scrub-jay.

Every morning, eight scrub-jays either were allowed into the compartment with 'no breakfast' or the compartment with 'breakfast'. They were then allowed to eat for the rest of the day. After several days, the birds were then provided with pine nuts suitable for caching (hoarding) in the evening. In anticipation of a morning without breakfast, the scrub-jays consistently hid food in the 'no breakfast' compartment rather than the 'breakfast' compartment, demonstrating an understanding of future needs (rather than just their immediate needs).

In a similar experiment, the scrub-jays were given either dog food in one compartment or peanuts in a second compartment for breakfast. When they were allowed to cache either food where they liked in the evenings, they once again demonstrated an understanding of future needs and a desire for a varied diet by hoarding peanuts in the dog food compartment and dog kibble in the peanut compartment. If they were caching for current hunger, they would not have discriminated between the types of food or the location of the cache.

Professor Nicky Clayton said, "The western scrub-jays demonstrate behavior that shows they are concerned both about guarding against food shortages and maximizing the variety of their diets in the future. It suggests they have advanced and complex thought processes as they have a sophisticated concept of past, present and future, and factor this into their planning."

Bird brains.

Billionaires Toast to Merrill Lynch's Investment in Coal-Fired Power Plants

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 8:20 PM EST

The Billionaires for Coal had a grand old time cavorting outside Merill Lynch in downtown San Francisco yesterday. Toasting with champagne glasses, tossing out one-liners, they sneered at a group of earnest, banner-waving protesters nearby. Just a few pairs of hipster sneakers and some scruffy facial hair poked out from under the Billionaires' suits, top hats, and cocktail dresses.

"Why travel to the tropics when we can bring the tropics to us?" asked Jodie van Horn. In real life she's an activist with Rainforest Action Network, but as a Billionaire she goes by Alata Monie. "We'll convert our winter properties to summer properties, and our summer properties to scuba properties."

"It's Darwinian: Survival of the Richest," said Levana Saxon, also known as Debbie Tont, wearing a jeweled barrette and strappy stilettos.

Across the courtyard, their fellow activists were staging a protest of Merrill Lynch's financing of 11 new coal-fired power plants in Texas, a more than $10 billion project.

The Billionaires presumed to be ready for a cocktail party with executives. Unfortunately, Merrill Lynch had locked the glass doors and was routing all employees through a restaurant on the side of the building. Many of the businesspeople glanced over once as they walked past but quickly turned away.

"Seventy-eight billion tons of greenhouse gases," preached Brianna Cay Cotter.

"Huzzah!" cheered the Billionaires. "More warming, less species!"

One problem is that coal emits more carbon dioxide than any other fuel source, except peat and raw wood. And though a new technology called gasification could keep more carbon out of the air, TXU plans to stick to a cheaper, conventional method called pulverization, according to the New York Times.

The new plants will emit more greenhouse gasses than 21 states or several countries—as much carbon dioxide as the annual emissions of 14 million American cars, according to the Rainforest Action Network.

But the Billionaires just fired back witty barbs.

"Rainforest Action Network? We can have more rainforest right here in San Francisco!" said one. "My daughter could buy RAN with her allowance," said van Horn.

While RAN staged similar protests across the country, a panel of judges yesterday delayed hearings for six of the plants to the summer in order to grant opponents time to prepare their case.

As Marc Gunther of Fortune writes, "Merrill Lynch talks a good game when it comes to saving the earth," claiming in their online "Environmental Sustainability Policy," "We are committed to a policy of environmental excellence…. We hold an annual Renewable Energy Conference…. We have sought to reduce energy consumption and emissions by an average of 2% annually."

Cal. to Consider Bolstering Mental Health Care in Prisons

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 7:53 PM EST

prison.jpgCalifornia ushered in the dark trend of turning the mentally ill out to the streets to fend for themselves (leading to an explosion in homelessness). Perhaps the state can also pioneer a saner way of dealing with mental illness.

About a quarter of the state's immense prison population suffers from a major mental illness, but there is little mental health care available in prison. Mentally ill men are 10 times more likely to commit violent crimes. Ergo, the golden state is graced with the highest recidivism rates in the country.

A bill to be introduced tomorrow in Sacramento will call for a complete overhaul of prison mental health care. It might cost money, but it will also almost certainly save the state money in the end since a precursor program cut incarceration rates by 72 percent.