Mother Jones Daily: Briefing


The Rap on Frist
France’s Quagmire

POLITICS
The Rap on Frist

This week, as the new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) begins his tenure as the replacement for a humbled Trent Lott, pundits are actively speculating on his qualifications: as an advocate for civil rights within the Republican party, as a Congressional mediator, and as a party leader in general.

Anticipating an improvement following Trent Lott’s performance, Leonard Pitts declares in an open letter to Sen. Frist in the Chicago Tribune that the Republicans have consistently failed to address racial issues, never convincing blacks that they truly care and not recognizing race as “the primary engine of [social and economic] disparity.” Pitts warns:

“The irony is that, on any number of issues from capital punishment to gun control to abortion, large numbers of blacks hold conservative views. Yet the most conservative party–which is to say, yours–has never been able to translate those views into votes. Because, on the one issue that affects us most profoundly–race–black people simply do not trust conservatives.”

The Washington Times‘ Alvin Williams acknowledges the challenge ahead of Frist but is convinced that he’s the right man for the job. Echoing a now-common explanation for Frist’s qualifications, Williams suggests that “African-Americans can take heart in” Frist’s extensive work as the ranking member of a Senate Subcommittee on African affairs, for which he became “a driving force in America’s effort to bring peace while relieving the suffering of millions” (the senator is also an accomplished doctor). Williams also cites Frist’s experience in foreign affairs in general, particularly his knowledge of the Middle East. Despite his abilities, “Mr. Frist will confront a Democrat feeding frenzy hungry to erase the memory of a disappointing election cycle.”

Peter Beinart half-heartedly seconds those sentiments in The New Republic, asserting that Frist’s accomplishments in Africa “testify to his decency and courage as a person, not his decency and courage as a senator.”

“Frist’s more politically relevant work stems from his two-year chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs. And, in this obscure corner of Congress, the Tennessee senator has amassed a record that hints at his likely performance in his new, far more public role. It is a record of decency, but, unfortunately, not of courage.”

Beinart suggests that Frist indeed amassed an impressive record on pushing much-needed legislation in Zimbabwe and elsewhere, but did so without significant opposition within the GOP. As for the issues of AIDS and the Sudan, Frist faced numerous battles within the party and ultimately backed down, unwilling to fight, says Beinart. Its “these two initiatives that provide the truest picture of the political character of the next Senate majority leader.”

Alexander Cockburn, for his part, steers clear of politics but pulls no punches in condemning Frist’s lack of morals in the field of medicine. Calling the senator “the cat world’s answer to Dr. Mengele,” Cockburn notes that, during and after Frist’s time in medical school, he duplicitously obtained large numbers of cats which he then killed and experimented on for research.

FOREIGN NEWS
France’s Quagmire

To some in France, Ivory Coast is starting to look a lot like Vietnam.

From its inception, the civil war in the former french colony has been one of the world’s more complicated conflicts, with mercenaries from across the globe and governments from across Africa choosing up sides. In a textbook example of “mission creep,” however, French peacekeeping troops have slowly but surely been drawn into fighting on the government’s side. Now, there are some 3,000 French troops in-country, and they have clashed with rebel fighters repeatedly. As Inter Press Service‘s Julio Godoy notes, many in Paris see danger in France’s slide into open warfare even as it pushes the warring sides toward peace talks.

“The soldiers are officially there to protect ‘French and other foreign nationals.’ But the French military in effect protects a line that divide the country in two, with government forces on one side and rebels on the other. The French army is protecting the government of Laurent Gbagbo.

One analyst in Paris compares the French military intervention to U.S. intervention in the Vietnam war. ‘First, we send soldiers to protect our nationals,’ says Christophe Ayad, diplomatic correspondent for the daily newspaper Libération. ‘Then, we send more soldiers to protect the soldiers protecting our nationals. In the end, we send soldiers to decide a war.'”

Debating the Death Penalty
A Gay Rights Dispute in Nashville

LAW & JUSTICE
Debating the Death Penalty

With one grand gesture, Illinois governor George Ryan emptied his state’s death row last week, commuting the sentences of more than 150 condemned men and pushing the debate over capital punishment back into the limelight. Not surprisingly, reaction to Ryan’s about-face has been swift, emotional and decidedly mixed.

Noting that Illinois has exonerated more prisoners (17) than it has executed (13), USA Today‘s editors applaud Ryan’s decision to pull the plug on a system tainted by “ racism, incompetence and deceit“:

“By scrapping every death sentence, Ryan has handed down a breathtaking indictment of the capital punishment system in Illinois. After three years of effort, the Republican governor, himself a former death-penalty advocate, could see no way to fix it, or to stomach its potential for error.”

Sheryl McCarthy goes even further in her praise, suggesting in The Philadelphia Inquirer that Ryan be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

“Gov. Ryan’s decision was gutsy, especially since he doesn’t oppose the death penalty on its face — just the application of it in a classist, racist way that gives a fair shake only to those who can afford to hire good lawyers.”

Similarly, Working for Change‘s Geov Parrish writes approvingly of Ryan’s last-minute bombshell, and wonders if it might provide a template for other like-minded conservatives to follow their consciences instead of focus groups. After all, he argues, there’s nothing inherently conservative about supporting the death penalty.

“Regardless of one’s view of the death penalty, clearly, Ryan’s mass commutation was an act born of conscience and executive judgment, not of poll testing or public popularity. The death penalty remains popular (though now slightly less so each year) in the United States, in stark contrast to the rest of the Western democracies.

I’ve always been puzzled as to why many of the same people who don’t trust the government to decide relatively petty issues like property rights, business regulation, or environmental law are so eager to let their state or country decide whether people should live or die. Such decisions are the ultimate in abrogating freedom of the individual.”

Not everyone, of course, was pleased by Ryan’s decision. The editors of The Chicago Tribune, though supportive of death penalty reform, suggest that Ryan opted for the grand gesture rather than the tough work of reviewing the sentences case-by-case.

“This page strongly urged Ryan to act more selectively, to provide careful justification for a limited number of commutations. He did not do that. He delivered a firm indictment of the Illinois capital justice system, and of the Illinois lawmakers who have refused to reform it. But he did not choose to be selective in his decision to clear out Death Row.

And so, the governor has spared a number of prisoners for whom such mercy is justified. But in issuing a blanket commutation he has also spared Illinois’ most vicious murderers.”

The National Review‘s Jack Dunphy, however, condemns the move outright. Noting that Ryan could end up in jail himself on ethics charges, Dunphy sees only a cynical play for posterity in the outgoing governor’s eleventh-hour commutations.

“The cynic may argue that Ryan, under criminal investigation for corruption in both his campaign and administration, may have been moved to act as he did by the desire for a friendly reception should he someday find himself walking the yard in pressed denim. ‘Hi, fellas. I’m the guy who got you off the row, remember?’

Whatever his motivation, Ryan’s action is an insult to the justice system, one more injurious than any of the system’s flaws he cited in his speech at Northwestern University on Saturday.”

Meanwhile, a new study of Maryland’s capital punishment system provided more ammunition to death penalty opponents last week. As Sarah Koenig reports in The Baltimore Sun, the two and-a-half year study suggests that those who kill whites are two-to-three times more likely to receive a death sentence than those who kill nonwhites.

LAW & JUSTICE
Gay Rights Dispute in Nashville

A proposed city ordinance in Nashville, Tennessee which would protect gays from discrimination in employment and housing has received considerable resistance from conservative groups in the area, not least from the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC, which is headquartered in Nashville, is the nation’s largest protestant denomination, with more than 16 million members. Julia Duin reports in the Washington Times that the church is threatening to move its major 2005 national convention out of Nashville if that city approves the legislation in a final vote on January 21. The ordinance, written by City Council member Chris Ferrell, a Southern Baptist himself, would illegalize the practise of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender.

SBC Executive Jack Wilkerson told the Baptist Press that, “It has and will continue to be our policy to express displeasure with activities that violate biblical principles or which have a negative impact on the fabric of family life.”

“I would hate to see the council adopt this pro-homosexual amendment undercutting our team effort and diminishing Nashville’s national reputation as pro-family.”

The Baptist Press suggests that most council members do support the ordinance, but Tony Derryberry, one of the few members who doesn’t, stated: “I do truly believe it’s unconstitutional…We’re not just talking about homosexuals, we’re talking about pedophiles, sex with dead people, sex with animals.”

Genoa’s Dirty Secrets
A Refugee Recipe for Disaster

GLOBAL ECONOMY
Genoa’s Dirty Secrets

During the bloody clashes between police and protesters at 2001’s G8 Summit in Genoa, Italian police defended their often brutal tactics as a necessary, if unfortunate, response to the black-clad anarchists they claimed had hijacked the anti-globalization movement.

Now, it turns out that much of the police’s evidence was fake, The BBC reports. According to an official investigation, police planted Molotov cocktails in a dormitory used by demonstrators to justify an unprovoked raid that injured dozens, and simulated the stabbing of an officer by a protester. To those following the case, the revelations merely confirm long-held suspicions of a cover-up aimed at excusing the Genoa police’s use of excessive force against largely peaceful demonstrators.

“‘Now that the investigation into the G8 events is drawing to a close, suspected truths which had already emerged are being officially confirmed,’ reported the Italian television channel, Rai Uno.”

While the story has been widely reported in Europe, the US press has completely ignored it. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting wonders why:

“Considering how fond U.S. media are of dramatic stories about protester/police ‘clashes,’ they should be able to find the energy to carefully investigate such incidents. This is crucial journalistic work; the right to peaceful assembly is central to democracy. The public deserves to have access to follow-up investigations of what happened at Genoa’s ‘violent’ protests.”

FOREIGN NEWS
A Refugee Recipe for Disaster

Just three weeks after authorities ordered the Red Cross to close a major weigh-station for refugees en route from France to Britain, hundreds of asylum-seekers are stranded near the port and freezing on the streets of Paris.

Paul Webster reports in The Observer that the jointly French-British decision to close the Sangatte refugee centre, near Calais, could result in a humanitarian disaster as a harsh French winter progresses. The refugees consist mainly of Afghans and Iraqi Kurds hoping to join their families and gain asylum in the UK, a country whose laws are less strict than those in France. Webster remarks that,

“Asylum-seekers, conspicuous among the ageing down-and-outs seeking respite from the cold, said they had arrived after Sangatte’s closure with hopes of entering Britain to join their families. Some were surviving on dwindling amounts of money sent from relations in Britain. Others had travelled with friends who preferred to sleep under bridges or in shop doorways, rather than risk registering in hostels and attracting attention.”

The number of refugees in France over the last year, he adds, has been a surprising 50,000, producing a considerable burden on aid workers and shelter facilities.

Reform, Saudi Style
A New Use for Old Clothes

FOREIGN NEWS
Reform, Saudi Style

Earlier this week, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah introduced a new initiative calling for political reform in the Arab world. While the Crown Prince remained predictably vague, he still raised eyebrows by calling for “internal reforms and enhanced political participation” — considered bywords for democratic ideals.

The irony of having a member of the House of Saud make such a proposition was not lost on some American pundits, who have long attacked Saudi Arabia for its autocratic rule. Nor was it lost on the handful of Saudis agitating for democratic reforms in their homeland.

In fact, those reformers have been given a far freer hand since Sept. 11, Catherine Taylor reports in The Christian Science Monitor. The Saudi regime — which Taylor aptly describes as “an alliance between the ruling Saud royal family and a deeply conservative religious establishment” — has permitted a small group of activists to meet, organize and use media outlets in efforts to introduce “democratic ideals” to Saudi Arabia. Led by literature professor Abdullah al-Hamad, they have been pushign for reforms in human rights and electoral policy. They have also been demanding a national constitution providing for an independent judiciary.

Hamad worries that, without such reforms, Saudi discontent will seek out more militant avenues of expression: “This is a formula for breeding extremism,” he says. Still, he believes that change must come slowly and carefully:

“The royal family and the religious establishment are two safety valves for this society,…They ensure society does not resort to chaos. Very fast reform is not recommended. We need to take it step by step so society understands and accepts the need to move towards a civilized society with all that implies.”

The editors of Arab News predict hopefully that Abdullah’s proposal is one clear indication that the future leader of Saudi Arabia is prepared to champion such reforms.

“For us in Saudi Arabia, there is another, a more important perspective, through which the whole exercise should be viewed. It is after all Crown Prince Abdullah who is the architect of this plan. Maybe, this is the vision he has for the future of his country.”

HEALTH
A New Use for Old Clothes

In much of the developing world, avoidance of one disease often means exposure to another. So it is in Bangladesh, where rural villagers, their wells tainted by cancer-causing arsenic, are left to rely on untreated, cholera-filled water from rivers and ponds. Researchers, however, have discovered a cheap and easy way to fight this bacterial scourge: old clothes.

A three-year study has revealed that filtering water through old clothing — primarily worn-out saris, in Bangladesh’s case — reduced cholera infection by nearly 50 percent, Jenny Hogan reports in New Scientist. The science behind the idea, she writes, is ingeniously simple:

“The researchers found the optimum filtering effect when the sari fabric was folded so that the water passed through four layers of cloth. In laboratory tests, this removed more than 99 per cent of the cholera-causing bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. The bacteria themselves are tiny, but they cling to plankton that are too big to squeeze through the pores of the fabric.”

Of course, scientists caution that boiling or treating water is still the most effective method of combatting cholera. Still, for those who can’t afford disinfectant or who live in areas where wood is too valuable to waste on boiling water, the new low-tech technique offers hope.

Negative Action
Congress Opens With Pizza

LAW & JUSTICE
Negative Action

President Bush finally waded into the affirmative action debate this week, calling one university’s diversity policy unconstitutional but dodging the question of whether racial considerations are always unconstitutional. At issue before the Supreme Court is the University of Michigan’s practice of assigning extra weight to the applications of minority students. A group of white students who were denied admission call it an illegal quota system; the White House agrees, but appears to be hedging its bets on this hot-button issue, unwilling to rule out all racial considerations.

Not surprisingly, the announcement has roused passions on both sides of the divide.

Noting that U-M is in accord with a 1978 court decision, The Detroit Free Press‘ editorial board hammers Bush for repeatedly terming the policy a quota system — which would be illegal under US law.

“No matter how many times President George W. Bush said so, the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program is not about quotas. That’s what makes his opposition to it so convoluted.

The points awarded to U-M candidates for race — like the points awarded for family legacy, geography and scholarship — are but one factor in determining admissions.”

Similarly, the editors of The St. Louis Post Dispatch accuse Bush of mischaracterizing the university’s admissions policy to score political points with his hard-right base.

“There is a big difference between setting aside a certain number of seats for a racial group — which is wrong and unconstitutional — and setting up an admissions process designed to achieve diversity in higher education — which is important and legal … President George W. Bush threw away an opportunity to send the message that the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln, not Lott.”

USA Today‘s editors, meanwhile, charge the White House with trying to have it both ways, and challenge Bush to prove his commitment to diversity by introducing a plan that really works.

“How can it claim to support diversity while attacking a system that ensures that students attending a major public university will more closely resemble the multi-hued public that funds it?

And if White House claims about the importance of inclusion are to be credible, it now needs to advance effective alternatives.”

The Weekly Standard‘s Lee Bockhorn, however, urges Bush to go all the way and declare racial considerations of any sort unconstitutional — a step Washington has pointedly not taken.

“Let’s hope Bush views filing a brief in the Michigan cases as a chance to demonstrate strategic boldness rather than tactical timidity, because the GOP desperately needs some strategic boldness on race issues. Republicans can never do enough to win the favor of the now-desiccated ‘civil rights’ establishment (e.g., the NAACP, Jesse Jackson). Better to ignore them and appeal to the vast majority of Americans, of all races, who believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence: that every American should be treated equally before the law.”

The editors of The New York Post, meanwhile, use the occasion to praise the President’s character, applauding the White House for its valiant stand on the issue and proposing their own vaguely-worded solution to the problem.

“Accountability — at the elementary and high-school level — can produce students who won’t need racial bonus ‘points’ to get into college. Opponents of such accountability are ultimately reinforcing the status quo.”

Lastly, the London Guardian offers a timeline of the legal decisions that have brought the debate to a head.

POLITICS
Congress Opens With Pizza

The first thing that GOP lawmakers took care of as they ushered in the 108th Congress last week was to loosen up annoying ethics rules, report the editors of The Baltimore Sun, namely: allowing lobbyists to feed lawmakers in their offices late into the night and permitting donations of “free travel to charity events, such as golf tournaments.” A strange decision and “steps in the wrong direction” from the party of ethics, suggests the Sun.

“The so-called “pizza rule” clarifies that food sent into a congressional office won’t be charged against the $50 limit on meals an individual lawmaker can accept from a lobbyist. Instead, the total cost of the food will be divided by all those who share it.”

Lobbyists love to provide such treats for staff members working late on legislation. What they hope for in return is usually information, which is crucial to their ability to ply their trade.”

The Sun warns that, “Republicans should beware, however, of the arrogance and complacency that overcome a party when it’s been in power too long.”

“Voters think, rightly so, that lawmakers earning $150,000 a year can supply their own pizza for late-night work sessions and shouldn’t expect charities to finance their vacations.

Greed doesn’t play well back home.”

On Tuesday, Slate‘s Mickey Kaus expressed shock that the media didn’t pick up on the story more, in a show of ridicule against the Republicans. He asks:

“It can’t be that reporters and editors really are sucking up to the dominant Republicans, can it? That the press has gotten so used to a plush, subsidized lifestyle that $50 meals seem normal, almost an entitlement?”

    Members like you

    Mother Jones is a nonprofit, and stories like this are made possible by readers like you. or to help fund independent journalism.