Thursday, April 24, 2008

Our American Empire

Anyone who has read my blog posts probably has a good idea of my fears of American Empire--not that our country is in danger of developing one, but that it is already here. America has long been an empire, though one in ultimate denial. As historian Thomas Bender in his work Nation Among Nations details, America likes to think of itself as a country that never colonised--as if all those lands acquired in the bloody westward march to the Pacific Coast were empty of inhabitants. Since then we have seen multiple wars of aggression, the overthrow of democratic governments to further our interests and invasion after invasion. Today that Empire is as bloated as ever, a militaristic and neoliberal machine that believes in its inherent right--or destiny--to lead and dominate.

The video above is a graphic novel version of legendary historian's Howard Zinn's A People's History of American Empire. Peep it. An accompanying article is below by Zinn from TomDispatch.

Music on page can be paused by clicking on the Imeem box in the lower right.

Empire or Humanity?

What the Classroom Didn't Teach Me About the American Empire

By Howard Zinn, TomDispatch

With an occupying army waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with military bases and corporate bullying in every part of the world, there is hardly a question any more of the existence of an American Empire. Indeed, the once fervent denials have turned into a boastful, unashamed embrace of the idea.

However the very idea that the United States was an empire did not occur to me until after I finished my work as a bombardier with the Eighth Air Force in the Second World War, and came home. Even as I began to have second thoughts about the purity of the "Good War," even after being horrified by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even after rethinking my own bombing of towns in Europe, I still did not put all that together in the context of an American "Empire."

I was conscious, like everyone, of the British Empire and the other imperial powers of Europe, but the United States was not seen in the same way. When, after the war, I went to college under the G.I. Bill of Rights and took courses in U.S. history, I usually found a chapter in the history texts called "The Age of Imperialism." It invariably referred to the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the conquest of the Philippines that followed. It seemed that American imperialism lasted only a relatively few years. There was no overarching view of U.S. expansion that might lead to the idea of a more far-ranging empire -- or period -- of "imperialism."

I recall the classroom map (labeled "Western Expansion") which presented the march across the continent as a natural, almost biological phenomenon. That huge acquisition of land called "The Louisiana Purchase" hinted at nothing but vacant land acquired. There was no sense that this territory had been occupied by hundreds of Indian tribes which would have to be annihilated or forced from their homes -- what we now call "ethnic cleansing" -- so that whites could settle the land, and later railroads could crisscross it, presaging "civilization" and its brutal discontents.

Neither the discussions of "Jacksonian democracy" in history courses, nor the popular book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Jackson, told me about the "Trail of Tears," the deadly forced march of "the five civilized tribes" westward from Georgia and Alabama across the Mississippi, leaving 4,000 dead in their wake. No treatment of the Civil War mentioned the Sand Creek massacre of hundreds of Indian villagers in Colorado just as "emancipation" was proclaimed for black people by Lincoln's administration.

That classroom map also had a section to the south and west labeled "Mexican Cession." This was a handy euphemism for the aggressive war against Mexico in 1846 in which the United States seized half of that country's land, giving us California and the great Southwest. The term "Manifest Destiny," used at that time, soon of course became more universal. On the eve of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Washington Post saw beyond Cuba: "We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood in the jungle."

The violent march across the continent, and even the invasion of Cuba, appeared to be within a natural sphere of U.S. interest. After all, hadn't the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 declared the Western Hemisphere to be under our protection? But with hardly a pause after Cuba came the invasion of the Philippines, halfway around the world. The word "imperialism" now seemed a fitting one for U.S. actions. Indeed, that long, cruel war -- treated quickly and superficially in the history books -- gave rise to an Anti-Imperialist League, in which William James and Mark Twain were leading figures. But this was not something I learned in university either.

The "Sole Superpower" Comes into View

Reading outside the classroom, however, I began to fit the pieces of history into a larger mosaic. What at first had seemed like a purely passive foreign policy in the decade leading up to the First World War now appeared as a succession of violent interventions: the seizure of the Panama Canal zone from Colombia, a naval bombardment of the Mexican coast, the dispatch of the Marines to almost every country in Central America, occupying armies sent to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As the much-decorated General Smedley Butler, who participated in many of those interventions, wrote later: "I was an errand boy for Wall Street."

At the very time I was learning this history -- the years after World War II -- the United States was becoming not just another imperial power, but the world's leading superpower. Determined to maintain and expand its monopoly on nuclear weapons, it was taking over remote islands in the Pacific, forcing the inhabitants to leave, and turning the islands into deadly playgrounds for more atomic tests.

In his memoir, No Place to Hide, Dr. David Bradley, who monitored radiation in those tests, described what was left behind as the testing teams went home: "[R]adioactivity, contamination, the wrecked island of Bikini and its sad-eyed patient exiles." The tests in the Pacific were followed, over the years, by more tests in the deserts of Utah and Nevada, more than a thousand tests in all.

When the war in Korea began in 1950, I was still studying history as a graduate student at Columbia University. Nothing in my classes prepared me to understand American policy in Asia. But I was reading I. F. Stone's Weekly. Stone was among the very few journalists who questioned the official justification for sending an army to Korea. It seemed clear to me then that it was not the invasion of South Korea by the North that prompted U.S. intervention, but the desire of the United States to have a firm foothold on the continent of Asia, especially now that the Communists were in power in China.

Years later, as the covert intervention in Vietnam grew into a massive and brutal military operation, the imperial designs of the United States became yet clearer to me. In 1967, I wrote a little book called Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. By that time I was heavily involved in the movement against the war.

When I read the hundreds of pages of the Pentagon Papers entrusted to me by Daniel Ellsberg, what jumped out at me were the secret memos from the National Security Council. Explaining the U.S. interest in Southeast Asia, they spoke bluntly of the country's motives as a quest for "tin, rubber, oil."

Neither the desertions of soldiers in the Mexican War, nor the draft riots of the Civil War, not the anti-imperialist groups at the turn of the century, nor the strong opposition to World War I -- indeed no antiwar movement in the history of the nation reached the scale of the opposition to the war in Vietnam. At least part of that opposition rested on an understanding that more than Vietnam was at stake, that the brutal war in that tiny country was part of a grander imperial design.

Various interventions following the U.S. defeat in Vietnam seemed to reflect the desperate need of the still-reigning superpower -- even after the fall of its powerful rival, the Soviet Union -- to establish its dominance everywhere. Hence the invasion of Grenada in 1982, the bombing assault on Panama in 1989, the first Gulf war of 1991. Was George Bush Sr. heartsick over Saddam Hussein's seizure of Kuwait, or was he using that event as an opportunity to move U.S. power firmly into the coveted oil region of the Middle East? Given the history of the United States, given its obsession with Middle Eastern oil dating from Franklin Roosevelt's 1945 deal with King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, and the CIA's overthrow of the democratic Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953, it is not hard to decide that question.

Justifying Empire

The ruthless attacks of September 11th (as the official 9/11 Commission acknowledged) derived from fierce hatred of U.S. expansion in the Middle East and elsewhere. Even before that event, the Defense Department acknowledged, according to Chalmers Johnson's book The Sorrows of Empire, the existence of more than 700 American military bases outside of the United States.

Since that date, with the initiation of a "war on terrorism," many more bases have been established or expanded: in Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, the desert of Qatar, the Gulf of Oman, the Horn of Africa, and wherever else a compliant nation could be bribed or coerced.

When I was bombing cities in Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and France in the Second World War, the moral justification was so simple and clear as to be beyond discussion: We were saving the world from the evil of fascism. I was therefore startled to hear from a gunner on another crew -- what we had in common was that we both read books -- that he considered this "an imperialist war." Both sides, he said, were motivated by ambitions of control and conquest. We argued without resolving the issue. Ironically, tragically, not long after our discussion, this fellow was shot down and killed on a mission.

In wars, there is always a difference between the motives of the soldiers and the motives of the political leaders who send them into battle. My motive, like that of so many, was innocent of imperial ambition. It was to help defeat fascism and create a more decent world, free of aggression, militarism, and racism.

The motive of the U.S. establishment, understood by the aerial gunner I knew, was of a different nature. It was described early in 1941 by Henry Luce, multi-millionaire owner of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, as the coming of "The American Century." The time had arrived, he said, for the United States "to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit, and by such means as we see fit."

We can hardly ask for a more candid, blunter declaration of imperial design. It has been echoed in recent years by the intellectual handmaidens of the Bush administration, but with assurances that the motive of this "influence" is benign, that the "purposes" -- whether in Luce's formulation or more recent ones -- are noble, that this is an "imperialism lite." As George Bush said in his second inaugural address: "Spreading liberty around the world… is the calling of our time." The New York Times called that speech "striking for its idealism."

The American Empire has always been a bipartisan project -- Democrats and Republicans have taken turns extending it, extolling it, justifying it. President Woodrow Wilson told graduates of the Naval Academy in 1914 (the year he bombarded Mexico) that the U.S. used "her navy and her army... as the instruments of civilization, not as the instruments of aggression." And Bill Clinton, in 1992, told West Point graduates: "The values you learned here… will be able to spread throughout the country and throughout the world."

For the people of the United States, and indeed for people all over the world, those claims sooner or later are revealed to be false. The rhetoric, often persuasive on first hearing, soon becomes overwhelmed by horrors that can no longer be concealed: the bloody corpses of Iraq, the torn limbs of American GIs, the millions of families driven from their homes -- in the Middle East and in the Mississippi Delta.

Have not the justifications for empire, embedded in our culture, assaulting our good sense -- that war is necessary for security, that expansion is fundamental to civilization -- begun to lose their hold on our minds? Have we reached a point in history where we are ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not our military power, but our humanity?

Howard Zinn is the author of A People's History of the United States and Voices of a People's History of the United States, now being filmed for a major television documentary. His newest book is A People's History of American Empire, the story of America in the world, told in comics form, with Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle in the American Empire Project book series. An animated video adapted from this essay with visuals from the comic book and voiceover by Viggo Mortensen, as well as a section of the book on Zinn's early life, can be viewed by clicking here. Zinn's website is


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Zimbabwe -Breaking the Silence from Across the Black Atlantic

Zimbabwe. I’ve neglected to speak on the situation in the Southern African country, despite the recent events that have taken place since the elections held back in late March. The situation is Zimbabwe a convoluted one. Here in the West, many in the black activist community have taken a strong stance, so much so that an opposing opinion is tantamount to some form of Pan African “race treason.” Far be it from me to care about being accused of such a thing. However as emotions tend to run high on the topic, I thought I’d give it a few weeks before I said anything. So this is my Zimbabwe commentary. However it is not so much about the elections that have recently taken place, the unheard of refusal to release results after almost a month, the recent run-off polls, or the bizarre cache of Chinese weapons (destined for Mugabe's government) that black union members refused to unload from a ship. Rather, this is about how we in the black western world view and talk about Zimbabwe—or better perhaps, how some attempt to stop us from doing so openly and honestly.

Zimbabwe. The recent elections have pitted two bitter forces against each other. On the one hand we have Robert Mugabe, hailed by many black activists around the world as a freedom fighter. On the other hand we have an opposition party, a hodge-podge of dissenting interests funded in party by a wealthy white minority, and backed by a former coloniser (the UK) as well as other Western powers. The 84 year old Mugabe and the ZANU PF have fought this election, and previous ones, by portraying themselves as freedom fighters against Western encroachment. And many blacks in the West, particularly the US, admire him and throw their support behind him based on this premise. It is an understandable choice, given the history of Zimbabwe under brutal colonizing regimes that massacred black Africans, engaged in whole-sale theft of land and set up oppressive regimes. Given that, I’d at first glance support Robert Mugabe and any leader in Africa who claimed to be fighting for African sovereignty. Only one problem with that analysis--the people most harmed by Mugabe's rule haven’t been the historical white oppressors. Rather, they’ve been other black Zimbabweans.

From shutting down the press, to destroying the shanty towns of hundreds of thousands of poor squatters, to torturing, beating and even killing dissidents (as reported by independent witnesses), the ZANU PF under Mugabe has oppressed more Africans than it has the minority of wealthy whites it is allegedly fighting against. By holding onto power for over two decades (a troubling sign in of itself) and declaring himself the only guarantor of Zimbabwe's sovereignty, the bitter irony is that Robert Mugabe went from freedom fighter to despotic autocrat, and has sowed the very seeds that allow foreign critics (Britain, the US and others) to both demonise him and ultimately gain control thru such groups as the MDC. What Mugabe should have done was groomed a legitimate and respected cadre of future leaders to take over, to take the struggle where he obviously could not, rather than holding onto the reins of power between himself and a handful of cronies. Now the people of Zimbabwe (on the face of it well over half of them, and most likely much more, given the intimidation tactics of the security forces loyal to Mugabe in suppressing the vote among rivals) have finally decided that enough is enough. And they're willing to go to the MDC--even with its troubling ties to the West--rather than endure another era of Mugabe/ZANU PF rule.

When the last round of elections were held in Zimbabwe, I had written then that the people of that country were between a rock and a hard place. Choose the oppressive autocrat they used to admire, or go with the opposition party whose ties they rightly question. What has always been needed is a choice that is not the MDC and certainly not Robert Mugabe. But given his tight grip on power, Robert Mugabe was the only person who could have seen to this, if his true concern was Zimbabwe in the first place. The sad fact is that Mugabe and the Western powers feed off each other. He casts himself as the black vanguard against Western encroachment and they cast him as a dictator. The more they push, the more he claims the enemies are at the gate and he is the only one that can save Zimbabwe. The more he tightens his hold on power, the more they demonise him, and place restrictive sanctions that only hurt the people of Zimbabwe. It has been a perfect symbiosis that groups like Africa Action pointed out do nothing to help the people of Zimbabwe, but keep Mugabe in power without his acknowledging his shortcomings, and simultaneously giving the West another “African despot” to rail against without having to acknowledge the harm of colonialism and neoliberalism.

Of course, listen to numerous black activists in the US, and they have decided they know what is best for the Zimbabwe people. To many black activists in the West who pay attention to such things, Mugabe is a revered figure who is beyond criticism. Usually if there is any criticism, it is glossed over as "well I know he does some things, but..." or "he may somehow abuse his power, but...." Either that, or some comparison is made by saying "well look at how much people Bush has killed,” as if that somehow makes oppression by Mugabe better. No actual refutable case is made when out-of-hand dismissing Mugabe's documented cases of torture, abuse, and silencing of black opposition members. When such evidence is ever presented, the usual retort is that independent observers, who are deemed worthy when they are pointing out abuse by Western powers, are allegedly no longer credible sources. The brutality of the 1980s carried out under Mugabe's watch in Matebeleland in which thousands of civilians died, is either ignored or excused in a myriad of ways--as somehow these black activists in the West know better about the goings-ons in Zimbabwe than the thousands of witnesses who have long reported on it. To Mugabe's black defenders in the West, they see the war veterans aligning behind Mugabe, and that's all they need.

The hard truth is that the Mugabe revered and romanticized by the black activist crowd in America is the one of the revolutionary that Bob Marley sang to during the hey-day of Zimbabwe independence. It is not the one with the sad and jaded history that followed in the two decades since. This new Mugabe who has aged with the time is something much of the black activist world remains in staunch denial about.

And, as I have personally learned, to voice criticism of Mugabe is to open one's self up to countless and ceaseless attacks from these black Western defenders of his legacy. Usually they sum up their support beginning with the seizure of white farm lands in the 1990s by Mugabe, and go no further. Anyone critical of Mugabe is accused of supporting the white farmers--naturally. Of course, people like myself who criticize Mugabe could care less about the seizure of white farms. Our problem is where the best farmland went exactly, the actual motives behind the land grab and a host of other abusive acts by the ZANU PF that have *nothing* to do with the land grab or the media-hyped "plight" of the rich white minority. The McCarthyist attack on black dissenters of Mugabe in the West became so high, that in 2003 The Black Commentator put out a special titled "The Debate on Zimbabwe Will Not be Throttled" to indicate that Mugabe’s stifling of the free press, was not about to reach across the Atlantic.

In a recent article for Black Commentator, Bill Fletcher, a past president of TransAfrica Forum, spoke of a recent visit to Zimbabwe, where he had to explain to perplexed black union workers that many black activists who had supported their liberation struggle, who had criticized apartheid in South Africa, were now backing Mugabe. As he put it, “they shook their heads in collective disbelief.”

So the question to be put to those who defend President Robert Mugabe so insistently, who can so easily and willlingly explain away his wrongs, gloss them over and then hurl accusations of treason and treachery at those who disagree, remains this: is it the people of Zimbabwe you’re fighting for—or is it just one man?


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Food Riots- How We Starve the World, And Why They're Not Taking It Anymore

Protestors in Mexico bang empty pots to protest soaring food prices- part of a larger global crisis that has struck much of the developing world.

Food Riots. They sound like something out of a medieval history book describing the dark side of feudalism, or perhaps more aptly a story set in some dystopian apocalyptic future. But these events are in the here and now. In Haiti food riots have claimed dozens of lives, as people unable to afford basic nutrition needs were forced to make cakes of mud to fill their stomachs. Food riots broke out in Egypt for several days after food prices soared. Similar events shook cities in Mexico, Morocco, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. And though underreported, these events have been ongoing for well over a year. The UN is now warning that food riots could spread and cause global instability. "The reality is that people are dying already in the riots," said Jacques Diouf, the head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Though the media has at least stopped to pick up on the story (in-between the horse race), there has been little actually done to explain the causes of the current crises. Perhaps it's because, like so much in our increasingly connected world, food riots in far flung developing countries turn out to have just about everything to do with financial institutions and a global economy run by rich nations like ourselves--who have been watching a steady increase in our own food prices. As Bill Quigley at Counterpunch reports in the following reposted article, we're starving the world and they've just about had enough.

30 Years Ago Haiti Grew All the Rice It Needed. What Happened?

The U.S. Role in Haiti's Food Riots


Riots in Haiti over explosive rises in food costs have claimed the lives of six people. There have also been food riots world-wide in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivorie, Egypt, Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

The Economist, which calls the current crisis the silent tsunami, reports that last year wheat prices rose 77% and rice 16%, but since January rice prices have risen 141%. The reasons include rising fuel costs, weather problems, increased demand in China and India, as well as the push to create biofuels from cereal crops.

Hermite Joseph, a mother working in the markets of Port au Prince, told journalist Nick Whalen that her two kids are “like toothpicks” they’ re not getting enough nourishment. Before, if you had a dollar twenty-five cents, you could buy vegetables, some rice, 10 cents of charcoal and a little cooking oil. Right now, a little can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and is not good rice at all. Oil is 25 cents. Charcoal is 25 cents. With a dollar twenty-five, you can’t even make a plate of rice for one child.”

The St. Claire’s Church Food program, in the Tiplas Kazo neighborhood of Port au Prince, serves 1000 free meals a day, almost all to hungry children -- five times a week in partnership with the What If Foundation. Children from Cite Soleil have been known to walk the five miles to the church for a meal. The cost of rice, beans, vegetables, a little meat, spices, cooking oil, propane for the stoves, have gone up dramatically. Because of the rise in the cost of food, the portions are now smaller. But hunger is on the rise and more and more children come for the free meal. Hungry adults used to be allowed to eat the leftovers once all the children were fed, but now there are few leftovers.

The New York Times lectured Haiti on April 18 that “Haiti, its agriculture industry in shambles, needs to better feed itself.” Unfortunately, the article did not talk at all about one of the main causes of the shortages -- the fact that the U.S. and other international financial bodies destroyed Haitian rice farmers to create a major market for the heavily subsidized rice from U.S. farmers. This is not the only cause of hunger in Haiti and other poor countries, but it is a major force.

Thirty years ago, Haiti raised nearly all the rice it needed. What happened?

In 1986, after the expulsion of Haitian dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loaned Haiti $24.6 million in desperately needed funds (Baby Doc had raided the treasury on the way out). But, in order to get the IMF loan, Haiti was required to reduce tariff protections for their Haitian rice and other agricultural products and some industries to open up the country’s markets to competition from outside countries. The U.S. has by far the largest voice in decisions of the IMF.

Doctor Paul Farmer was in Haiti then and saw what happened. “Within less than two years, it became impossible for Haitian farmers to compete with what they called ‘Miami rice.’ The whole local rice market in Haiti fell apart as cheap, U.S. subsidized rice, some of it in the form of ‘food aid,’ flooded the market. There was violence, ‘rice wars,’ and lives were lost.”

“American rice invaded the country,” recalled Charles Suffrard, a leading rice grower in Haiti in an interview with the Washington Post in 2000. By 1987 and 1988, there was so much rice coming into the country that many stopped working the land.

Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian priest who has been the pastor at St. Claire and an outspoken human rights advocate, agrees. “In the 1980s, imported rice poured into Haiti, below the cost of what our farmers could produce it. Farmers lost their businesses. People from the countryside started losing their jobs and moving to the cities. After a few years of cheap imported rice, local production went way down.”

Still the international business community was not satisfied. In 1994, as a condition for U.S. assistance in returning to Haiti to resume his elected Presidency, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced by the U.S., the IMF, and the World Bank to open up the markets in Haiti even more.

But, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, what reason could the U.S. have in destroying the rice market of this tiny country?

Haiti is definitely poor. The U.S. Agency for International Development reports the annual per capita income is less than $400. The United Nations reports life expectancy in Haiti is 59, while in the US it is 78. Over 78% of Haitians live on less than $2 a day, more than half live on less than $1 a day.

Yet Haiti has become one of the very top importers of rice from the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture 2008 numbers show Haiti is the third largest importer of US rice - at over 240,000 metric tons of rice. (One metric ton is 2200 pounds).

Rice is a heavily subsidized business in the U.S. Rice subsidies in the U.S. totaled $11 billion from 1995 to 2006. One producer alone, Riceland Foods Inc of Stuttgart Arkansas, received over $500 million dollars in rice subsidies between 1995 and 2006.

The Cato Institute recently reported that rice is one of the most heavily supported commodities in the U.S. -- with three different subsidies together averaging over $1 billion a year since 1998 and projected to average over $700 million a year through 2015. The result? “Tens of millions of rice farmers in poor countries find it hard to lift their families out of poverty because of the lower, more volatile prices caused by the interventionist policies of other countries.”

In addition to three different subsidies for rice farmers in the U.S., there are also direct tariff barriers of 3 to 24 percent, reports Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute -- the exact same type of protections, though much higher, that the U.S. and the IMF required Haiti to eliminate in the 1980s and 1990s.

U.S. protection for rice farmers goes even further. A 2006 story in the Washington Post found that the federal government has paid at least $1.3 billion in subsidies for rice and other crops since 2000 to individuals who do no farming at all; including $490,000 to a Houston surgeon who owned land near Houston that once grew rice.

And it is not only the Haitian rice farmers who have been hurt.

Paul Farmer saw it happen to the sugar growers as well. “Haiti, once the world's largest exporter of sugar and other tropical produce to Europe, began importing even sugar-- from U.S. controlled sugar production in the Dominican Republic and Florida. It was terrible to see Haitian farmers put out of work. All this sped up the downward spiral that led to this month's food riots.”

After the riots and protests, President Rene Preval of Haiti agreed to reduce the price of rice, which was selling for $51 for a 110 pound bag, to $43 dollars for the next month. No one thinks a one month fix will do anything but delay the severe hunger pains a few weeks.

Haiti is far from alone in this crisis. The Economist reports a billion people worldwide live on $1 a day. The US-backed Voice of America reports about 850 million people were suffering from hunger worldwide before the latest round of price increases.

Thirty three countries are at risk of social upheaval because of rising food prices, World Bank President Robert Zoellick told the Wall Street Journal. When countries have many people who spend half to three-quarters of their daily income on food, “there is no margin of survival.”

In the U.S., people are feeling the world-wide problems at the gas pump and in the grocery. Middle class people may cut back on extra trips or on high price cuts of meat. The number of people on food stamps in the US is at an all-time high. But in poor countries, where malnutrition and hunger were widespread before the rise in prices, there is nothing to cut back on except eating. That leads to hunger riots.

In the short term, the world community is sending bags of rice to Haiti. Venezuela sent 350 tons of food. The US just pledged $200 million extra for worldwide hunger relief. The UN is committed to distributing more food.

What can be done in the medium term? The US provides much of the world’s food aid, but does it in such a way that only half of the dollars spent actually reach hungry people. US law requires that food aid be purchased from US farmers, processed and bagged in the US and shipped on US vessels -- which cost 50% of the money allocated. A simple change in US law to allow some local purchase of commodities would feed many more people and support local farm markets.

In the long run, what is to be done? The President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who visited Haiti last week, said “Rich countries need to reduce farms subsidies and trade barriers to allow poor countries to generate income with food exports. Either the world solves the unfair trade system, or every time there's unrest like in Haiti, we adopt emergency measures and send a little bit of food to temporarily ease hunger."

Citizens of the USA know very little about the role of their government in helping create the hunger problems in Haiti or other countries. But there is much that individuals can do. People can donate to help feed individual hungry people and participate with advocacy organizations like Bread for the World or Oxfam to help change the U.S. and global rules which favor the rich countries. This advocacy can help countries have a better chance to feed themselves.

Meanwhile, Merisma Jean-Claudel, a young high school graduate in Port-au-Prince told journalist Wadner Pierre "...people can’t buy food. Gasoline prices are going up. It is very hard for us over here. The cost of living is the biggest worry for us, no peace in stomach means no peace in the mind…I wonder if others will be able to survive the days ahead because things are very, very hard."

“On the ground, people are very hungry,” reported Fr. Jean-Juste. “Our country must immediately open emergency canteens to feed the hungry until we can get them jobs. For the long run, we need to invest in irrigation, transportation, and other assistance for our farmers and workers.”

In Port au Prince, some rice arrived in the last few days. A school in Fr. Jean-Juste’s parish received several bags of rice. They had raw rice for 1000 children, but the principal still had to come to Father Jean-Juste asking for help. There was no money for charcoal, or oil.

Jervais Rodman, an unemployed carpenter with three children, stood in a long line Saturday in Port au Prince to get UN donated rice and beans. When Rodman got the small bags, he told Ben Fox of the Associated Press, “The beans might last four days. The rice will be gone as soon as I get home.”

Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He can be reached at People interested in donating to feed children in Haiti should go to

People who want to help change U.S. policy on agriculture to help combat world-wide hunger should go to: or


Friday, April 18, 2008

Obama Dusts Dem Haters Off

Oh the Inanity! - so read the headlines at TPM muckraker, as they sat through the torturous debacle of a debate hosted by ABC and moderated by anchors George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson. Editor & Publisher called ABC's presidential debate "perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years.

An annoyed--but rather calm--Obama by Thursday turned the tables on his moderators, by taking a little cue from Jay-Z. And in less than 48hrs, it's become an online favorite.

Peep the video above, and read the rest below. As always, the Imeem box in the lower right column of the blog can be paused.

Oh the Inanity! - so read the headlines at TPM muckraker, as they sat through the torturous debacle of a debate hosted by ABC and moderated by anchors George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson. For 53 minutes, the corporate media pundits touched on no substantative issues in this 21st Democratic Debate held in Philadelphia. Instead topics ranged from fixations on Obama's wearing of flag lapel pins to his nebulous association with a 1960s radical--the latter it seems coming directly from right-wing FOX News host Sean Hannity. The DailyKos called it a "game of trivial pursuit." Katrina Van Heuvel at The Nation named it a "Gotcha Debate," with questions that left her "angry, frustrated, and yes, bitter." Editor & Publisher called ABC's presidential debate "perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years."

The crowd actually began heckling Gibson and Stephanopoulos once the debate had ended, jeering and booing both. Journalists and media critics roundly panned the ABC debate as shameful, shoddy and downright embarrassing. By Friday, ABC had been flooded with phone calls and comments from people registering their disgust at the low brow nature of the debate. Organizations like have amassed over 200,000 signatures in an online petition, and well known journalists have drafted a letter condemning the deplorable state of journalism the debate represented.

An annoyed--but rather calm--Obama by Thursday turned the tables on both his moderators and Hillary Clinton, by picking up on the popular sentiment throughout much of the Democratic base that the debate was a wasted opportunity that gave example to all that people find wrong with politics.

As The Nation noted:

"Barack Obama is clearly taking that abysmal ABC News debate in stride. He told his supporters not to fret about all the "textbook Washington" drama on Thursday, recounting the superficial moderators and Hillary Clinton's attempts to "twist the knife" on trivial issues. Then Obama made pop cultural history, miming the rapper Jay-Z's iconic hand signal to "brush the dirt" off his shoulders."

When I first saw Obama brush the "dirt of his shoulder" on a clip Keith Olbermann showed Thurday night, the crowd ate it up. Well the black crowd anyway. The older white folks smiled and clapped when prompted, but it may have been lost upon them until one of their kids explained it later. I immediately of course thought of the Jay-Z track and it was in my head all day. I was wonderin if much more would be made of it, and of course in this digital age, didn't take long before someone did the mashup.

So the question remains, is Michelle Obama really the "baddest chick in the game" and is she really wearin' his chain?

More reviews of ABC's Democratic Debate:

Robert Grunwald at TIME:

"At a time of foreign wars, economic collapse and environmental peril, the cringe-worthy first half of the debate focused on such crucial matters as Senator Obama's comments about rural bitterness, his former pastor, an obscure sixties radical with whom he was allegedly "friendly," and the burning constitutional question of why he doesn't wear an American flag pin on his lapel — with a single detour into Senator Hillary Clinton's yarn about sniper fire in Tuzla. Apparently, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos ran out of time before they could ask Obama why he's such a lousy bowler."

Tom Shales Washington Post:

"When Barack Obama met Hillary Clinton for another televised Democratic candidates' debate last night, it was more than a step forward in the 2008 presidential election. It was another step downward for network news -- in particular ABC News, which hosted the debate from Philadelphia and whose usually dependable anchors, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, turned in shoddy, despicable performances."


Saturday, April 12, 2008

How the Media Keeps Us *Dumb*

Though for the sake of time and brevity I no longer do the weekly "media watch," it's still good to keep in mind how our corporate mainstream media keeps the public woefully uninformed. As Glen Greenwald over at notes:

In the past two weeks, the following events transpired. A Department of Justice memo, authored by John Yoo, was released which authorized torture and presidential lawbreaking. It was revealed that the Bush administration declared the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights to be inapplicable to "domestic military operations" within the U.S. The U.S. Attorney General appears to have fabricated a key event leading to the 9/11 attacks and made patently false statements about surveillance laws and related lawsuits.

So if that's the case, with such important topics to pursue, why is it the major corp news media found more time to talk about the sexual indiscretions of a former US president and question the patriotism and bowling skills of a current presidential candidate?

According to NEXIS, over the past thirty days the following topics were mentioned within a given frequency, obviously ranking their order of importance to the corporate media pundits:

"Yoo and torture" - 102 times

"Mukasey and 9/11" -- 73 times

"Yoo and Fourth Amendment" -- 16 times

"Obama and bowling" -- 1,043 times

"Obama and Wright" -- More than 3,000 times (too many to be counted)

"Obama and patriotism" - 1,607 times

"Clinton and Lewinsky" -- 1,079 times

Media Matters has also documented much of this seeming race to the bottom when it comes to news worthy of being called journalism.

According to Eric Boehlert even the Iraq War has taken a back seat to any titillating story able to fill newspaper space and airtime. While "news consumers' interest in Iraq remains relatively high," he states, "news coverage has basically vanished." He notes:

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's News Coverage Index, reports about the situation in Iraq accounted for just 2 percent of total news coverage from January through March.

On the April 11th episode of Hardball, host Chris Matthews and correspondent David Shuster, as if seeking to crystallize the media's propensity for the inane, spent what seemed to be an endless amount of time actually evaluating Sen. Barack Obama's beverage selection at a local diner, as some barometer of his electability:

MATTHEWS: What's so hard about doing a diner? I don't get it. Why doesn't he go in there and say, "Did you see the papers today? What do you think about that team? How did we do last night?" Just some regular connection?

SHUSTER: Well, here's the other thing that we saw on the tape, Chris, is that, when Obama went in, he was offered coffee, and he said, "I'll have orange juice."


SHUSTER: He did.

And it's just one of those sort of weird things. You know, when the owner of the diner says, "Here, have some coffee," you say, "Yes, thank you," and, "Oh, can I also please have some orange juice, in addition to this?" You don't just say, "No, I'll take orange juice," and then turn away and start shaking hands. That's what happens [unintelligible] --

MATTHEWS: You don't ask for a substitute on the menu.

SHUSTER: Exactly.

Yeah, exactly. With indepth media coverage like this, who needs propaganda? Keeping us all dumb will do the trick just fine.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Randi Rhodes Kisses Air America G'Bye

So it finally happened. Air America host Randi Rhodes has quit the liberal radio station. This bombshell happened a week after Rhodes was suspended for calling Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro "f*cking whores" during a stand up comedy routine in San Francisco. Air America Media released a statement Thursday saying Rhodes informed them Wednesday night that she was severing ties with the network and going over to their key competitor--Nova M Radio. My thoughts...

When Air America Radio first began in March of 2004, it was a welcome bit of relief from the right-wing dogma that dominated the mainstream airwaves. The SNL veteran Al Franken was a big draw, as were morning shows featuring stand up comedian Mark Maron. Even pop culture figures like Chuck D and Janeane Garafalo had their own shows. Then there was Randi Rhodes, who was in a class all by herself. In the past few years the station has seen a few shifts in management, and the loss of more than a few hosts. By the time the most recent owner, Mark Green, stepped onto the scene, alot of things had changed.

Al Franken, left to run a senate campaign. Mark Maron and his popular morning show was canned. Mike Malloy--the most radical leftist on the station--was canned, and was picked up by the Phoenix based Nova M Radio. Janene Garafalo ended up leaving because she couldn't deal with the management, which she saw as stifling. Sam Seder, her co-star and quite popular, ended up being bounced from a daily show to a Sunday only time slot. His show was replaced with this guy named Lionel (a move AA listeners seemed to detest en masse) upon the most recent management shift. And now the person who was undoubtedly one of the biggest draws for AA has left for Nova M.

Hmmm. Not the best of signs.

As a person who subscribes to AA (for now) and podcasts Randi Rhodes, my relationship with her show has always been love/hate. Randi pulls no punches. She says what she wants and what she believes, even when I may think it seems quite wrong. She's intense, arrogant, is prone to yell her points and is not above treating even her admiring fans with condescension. Her on air onslaught of Ralph Nader on her first show was, imho, rude to the point of uncalled for. On more than one occassion I've turned her off or tuned her out for a week or so, because her abrasive style gets to me. And sometimes there was more commentary on her personal life than politics, and I really had little interest with what she and her friend Wendy Williams--yes, the black radio gossip diva--talked about while sipping mojitos.

That being said, Randi has the rare talent of being able to deliver a verbal ass whooping to Rush Limbaugh, Hannity and the whole right wing crew with seeming ease. Conservatives who called into her show with their marching orders and talking points were *handled* the way you want to see em' handled. Randi probably helped publicize books like Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine" more than anyone I know--except perhaps Amy Goodman. During Katrina, she was the *only* media personality I heard (a white woman at that) who asserted that the wild rumors of mass rape, mayhem and "birth of a nation" phobia that dominated the news narrative was bullsh*t---for which she was derided, but eventually vindicated. And she has vocally and strongly opposed the Iraq War and the Bush regime in general since day ONE.

Odd thing is, Randi used to chastise anyone--to the point of yelling--who tried to bash one Democratic presidential candidate over another. Because she said her friend Bill Clinton had told her, "fall in love during the primaries--but fall in line for the election." She'd point out that no matter who it was you wanted to win the primary, when it came to a Dem vs the GOP in the national election, u voted for the Dem because the GOP was a nightmare of an alternative. Then during the TX/Ohio primaries, something in Randi began to shift. I think it was the same sense of disgust everyone had with the 3AM phone call ads, the seeming race-baiting, etc. By the time all was said and done, Randi Rhodes, who had defended the Clintons for near two decades, did a 180.

She never came out and said she voted for Obama previously. But she basically pointed out that due to the math, Hillary could not win. And therefore her staying in the campaign was a selfish act that would only result in the destruction of the Democratic Party, and possibly allow the GOP to win come Nov. She began to see the Clintons as downright dangerous and subversive, and claimed she would no longer hold back on revealing all the dirt she knew about them. It was like Malcolm after he found out about Elijah's "marital indescretions." When Clinton threw a kitchen sink at Obama, Randi threw two or three back, encouraging her audience to go out immediatley and work to ensure Obama's victory. Her common mantra as opposed to "fall in love in the primary" became, "you can't marry that woman!" When it came to the Clintons, Randi had become Air America's Jeremiah Wright.

Alot of her fans who were Clinton supporters didn't take kindly to this, and called her out repeatedly. Randi "handled" them as well as she did the conservatives. As I listened to all of this, a part of me enjoyed it...for a while. Then it began to get really vitrolic. I'm no Clinton fan, but some of Randi's comments made *me* wince. So when I first heard about the "f*ckin whore" statement she made with regards to Clinton during a comedy sketch, I wasn't so surprised.

I personally think that was overboard. There are alot of ways to be critical of Clinton and her surrogates without going in that direction. As a person whose pegged as an Obama supporter, I don't really think that helps her (or Obama's) cause. On the other hand, she didn't make these comments on-air. She made them during a comedy stand up routine, that AA claims they were in part supporting. The free speech area here gets really murky, as it brings up issues of censorship and how much any company can intrude into one's life outside of one's primary job. Yet I can understand AAs case, even if I don't know if suspension--which eventually led to Randi to quit--was the best course of action.

Oh well, NOVA M radio I'm sure is gleeful at this catch. As for the future of Air America Radio, I'm not too sure...


Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Global Gag Rule- A Matter of Life and Death

The Global Gag Rule (or the Mexico City Policy as it is best known) which restricts the use of funds on abortion and other related aspects of reproductive medicine, is having a detrimental effect on the health of women--specifically poor women of color--around the world. Chances are high that ending the GGR will hinge on who is in the White House. And for many women in developing countries, that choice will be a matter of life and death.

The Global Gag Rule came about as a backlash to Roe v. Wade. First formulated by Sen. Jesse Helms, it restricted access to abortions to women in developing countries where America was providing aid. It's most extreme implementation came in 1984, under President Ronald Reagan, in the form of the so-called Mexico City Policy. As a USAID states on their site, "The Mexico City Policy requires foreign nongovernmental organizations to certify that they will not perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning as a condition for receiving USAID assistance for family planning." Thus not only was American health aid not allowed to go towards such endeavors, but poor countries were themselves restricted from using their own public funding for abortion and related aspects of women's health. The GGR remained in effect until 1993, when newly elected President Bill Clinton repealed the policy, citing it as "excessively broad" and stated that it "undermined efforts to promote safe and efficacious family planning programs in foreign nations."

Upon taking office in 2001 however, President George W. Bush immediately re-authorized the GGR as US foreign policy through executive order, stating, "It is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortion, either here or abroad."

Since then, numerous domestic and international groups have been tracking the consequences of the reimplementation of the Mexico City Policy. What they've found is that across the board it has been dire, contributing to a lack of access for women in poor countries to comprehensive health services. By denyingNGOs from "actively promoting abortion," the GGR also restricts any attempts to aid local grassroots women's movements in foreign countries fighting to legalize or make abortion available as a method of family planning.

Dr. Ejike Oji of Nigeria testifying before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs states:

"Women in Nigeria are dying and are maimed daily and needlessly from lack of access to reproductive health care and the all-too-often resulting unsafe abortions. U.S. policy – the Global Gag Rule – is directly at odds with efforts to address these threats to maternal health.

In Kenya, where abortion is illegal with the exception of rape and where the life of
the mother is at risk, unsafe abortion accounts for 30% of maternal deaths, and at least half of the hospitalizations in public gynecology wards. Because of this Kenyan doctors often take a very "liberal" approach to the interpretation of Kenya's restrictive abortion policy, with the knowledge that if they do not, women will be forced to conduct unsafe abortions that place their lives at higher risk. While local Kenyan women's groups have been pushing for greater reproductive rights, the GGR undermines their efforts at every turn. A January 2008 article in Ms. Magazine notes that this forces many such groups and physicians to make hard choices:

Women's-rights groups in Kenya have been pushing for a new national law on reproductive rights, as well as supporting a continental protocol on the rights of African women and a patients' bill of rights. But they're not helped in their efforts to improve reproductive health care by the global gag rule, which has forced a number of clinics to turn down U.S. funds rather than stop discussing abortion. Three clinics of the Family Planning Association of Kenya (an affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation) and two clinics of Marie Stopes International (the U.K.-based reproductive-health NGO) have been closed for loss of funds, according to a 2004 report from the Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy in San Francisco.

As a 2006 article on Uganda from Off Our Backs points out, "Bush foreign policy, as seen in the Global Gag Rule, contributes to the silence that surrounds abortion.... The policy was meant to reduce the number of abortions; instead, women who need these services are dying from complications due to unsafe abortions."

Tied into women's reproductive rights, the GGR has also had a detrimental effect on varied aspects of sex education, so vital in fighting the global AIDS epidemic:

The global gag rule has also led to a pullback in overseas delivery of contraceptives, according to recent testimony by Rep. Nita M.Lowey (D-N.Y.) before the House Foreign Affairs Committee: "U.S. shipments of contraceptives have ceased to 20 developing nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In some areas, the largest distribution centers for contraceptives have experienced decreased access for over 50 percent of the women they serve."

This decrease in funding for essentials such as contraceptives is already threatening to reverse positive results in high HIV-infected areas such as Uganda, where the impressive gains made in encouraging safe-education is now being replaced by "abstinence-only" programs--which is supported by the GGR's broad premise. This has often put conservative US policies in line with the policies of conservatives in Uganda, both tragically out of touch with what global and local physicians see as the pressing medical needs of the people.

University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty member John Ferrick, who organizes an annual Uganda Study Abroad trip, has noticed first hand how GGR has dismantled that country's effective fight against HIV spread and infection. past years there were many condom advertisements and billboards. This was in accordance with Uganda's ABC program to fight HIV/AIDS: Abstinence, Be faithful, use Condoms. Their ABC program helped to make them a model for dealing with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. During my trip this year, however, I saw only one condom billboard. There was, however, an abundance of abstinence billboards, sponsored by the First Lady of Uganda, JanetMuseveni. The switch from condoms to abstinence is not only because of the beliefs of President Museveni and his wife but also because of Washington, D.C

Local MD Fred Wabwire-Mangen, MD and professor at the Ugandan Institute of Public Health, agrees: "Washington will fund anything for abstinence," he says.

In early March 2008, Population Action International (PAI) and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) conducted a joint policy research trip to Zambia, to study the effects of the GGR and the conservative US foreign aid policy on women's health. Their findings paint a dire picture:

By all appearances, reproductive health seems to have vanished from Zambia both conceptually and as a health service. At the policy level, there is no official framework forSRHR. At the program level, sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services are thin and fall far short of demand. Rates of maternal death, unplanned pregnancy and unsafe abortion -- especially among young women -- are persistently high. Contraceptivestockouts have become more frequent and community-based SRH outreach throughout rural Zambia is non-existent, thanks to the Global Gag Rule. While the U.S. is one of a handful of donors providing FP/RH assistance and donated contraceptives to Zambia (about $6 million in FY07, compared with $216 million in PEPFAR funding), this small amount of U.S. assistance is hamstrung by Global Gag Rule restrictions....

As recent as 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to modify the GGR so that organizations that were ineligible for U.S. assistance under the restrictive policy could at least receive contraceptives. The Senate supported this provision and, additionally, passed a provision to overturn the entire policy. But faced with a Bush Administration veto of all the funding for foreign assistance programs, and lacking the numbers to override it, this language never made it into the final bill, and the Mexico City Policy remains intact. This month the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bill to increase funding for the fight against HIV/AIDS thru PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). At question is whether the final bill will reflect a substantial challenge to GGR, or maintain the status quo.

So what can be done?

For one, GET INVOLVED. There are numerous groups (listed below) who have been fighting to repeal the Global Gag Rule through lobbying and education.

Second, VOTE. There is a justifiable tendency to become cynical with politics, and especially in this overlong primary season, to become disenchanted. But the GGR was put into effect by people voted into office, on the Congressional and Executive level, and it is the only way to see it repealed. It's your money that's being used. You can decide on whether you want to have it spent further on such things as a 100 year occupation of Iraq, or whether it can possibly be used to save lives at home and abroad.

And third, VOTE SMART. Disillusion with the loss of a preferred primary candidate may lead some to sit out an election or--in what can only be called absurdity--vote for a candidate opposed to their political leanings. Before anyone walks into a booth to push a button or pull a lever out "sour grapes," remember that real lives are at risk. Find out where your candidate, and even your lesser preferred candidate, stands on this issue, before voting for someone who stands for an opposing principle.

It might just be another insignifcant vote for you, one that may not yield *all* that you were hoping for. But for many women across the globe, it's a matter of life and death.

See also:


How the Mexico City Policy Perpetuates the High Rate of Unsafe Abortion in Nigeria- Dr.Ejike Oji

Reproductive Rights Without Borders

Are U.S. Policies Killing Women?

What Zambia Teaches Us About International AIDS Policy

Uganda and the "Global Gag Rule"- Off Our Backs


Free Choice Saves Lives 2008 Presidential Candidate Campaign

Access Denied: US Restrictions on International Family Planning

International Women's Health Coalition

Center for Reproductive Rights