Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Israel Violates Geneva Conventions in Gaza (Graphic)

The Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip represent severe and massive violations of international humanitarian law as defined in the Geneva Conventions, both in regard to the obligations of an Occupying Power and in the requirements of the laws of war.

The statement above was issued in response to Israel's attack in Gaza by Professor Richard Falk, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Below the fold are the rest of his words, as well as some images currently coming out of Gaza. Warning- they are graphic.

Israel Violates Geneva Conventions in Gaza

27 December 2008

The Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip represent severe and massive violations of international humanitarian law as defined in the Geneva Conventions, both in regard to the obligations of an Occupying Power and in the requirements of the laws of war.

Those violations include:

Collective punishment – the entire 1.5 million people who live in the crowded Gaza Strip are being punished for the actions of a few militants.

Targeting civilians – the airstrikes were aimed at civilian areas in one of the most crowded stretches of land in the world, certainly the most densely populated area of the Middle East.

Disproportionate military response – the airstrikes have not only destroyed every police and security office of Gaza's elected government, but have killed and injured hundreds of civilians; at least one strike reportedly hit groups of students attempting to find transportation home from the university.

Earlier Israeli actions, specifically the complete sealing off of entry and exit to and from the Gaza Strip, have led to severe shortages of medicine and fuel (as well as food), resulting in the inability of ambulances to respond to the injured, the inability of hospitals to adequately provide medicine or necessary equipment for the injured, and the inability of Gaza's besieged doctors and other medical workers to sufficiently treat the victims.

Certainly the rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel are unlawful. But that illegality does not give rise to any Israeli right, neither as the Occupying Power nor as a sovereign state, to violate international humanitarian law and commit war crimes or crimes against humanity in its response. I note that Israel's escalating military assaults have not made Israeli civilians safer; to the contrary, the one Israeli killed today after the upsurge of Israeli violence is the first in over a year.

Israel has also ignored recent Hamas' diplomatic initiatives to reestablish the truce or ceasefire since its expiration on 26 December.

The Israeli airstrikes today, and the catastrophic human toll that they caused, challenge those countries that have been and remain complicit, either directly or indirectly, in Israel's violations of international law. That complicity includes those countries knowingly providing the military equipment including warplanes and missiles used in these illegal attacks, as well as those countries who have supported and participated in the siege of Gaza that itself has caused a humanitarian catastrophe.

I remind all member states of the United Nations that the UN continues to be bound to an independent obligation to protect any civilian population facing massive violations of international humanitarian law – regardless of what country may be responsible for those violations. I call on all Member States, as well as officials and every relevant organ of the United Nations system, to move on an emergency basis not only to condemn Israel's serious violations, but to develop new approaches to providing real protection for the Palestinian people.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Israeli Assault on Gaza

Since the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, Israelis have killed nearly 5000 Palestinians, nearly a thousand of them minors. Since fall of 2007, Israel has kept the 1.5 million Gazans under a blockade, interdicting food, fuel and medical supplies to one degree or another. Wreaking collective punishment on civilian populations such as hospital patients denied needed electricity is a crime of war.--Professor Juan Cole, Middle East Analyst

With over 200 280 dead and over a thousand wounded, the Israeli airstrikes in Hamas controlled Gaza have been horrific and unprecedented in recent Mid East history. Reacting to a continued barrage of rocket attacks, Israel has claimed that "now is a time to fight." Hamas has gone underground, and has vowed more rocket attacks and a wave of suicide bombings. The Israeli army is massing troops for a possible ground offensive as the entire region threatens to enter a new cycle of violence.

Or at least that's the narrative you'll hear spun out of the mainstream US media.

What you won't hear is that Israel has had an enforced blockade on Gaza, cutting off food, water, medicines and more that has left the region poverty-stricken and at times near starvation. All of this occurred since Hamas, a group once funded by Israel to thwart the more nationalist PLO, fairly won democratic elections, and became pariahs in the West for their refusal to abandon armed struggle. There have been stories of Gazans eating everything from grass to animal feed. The humanitarian disaster there has been long in the making, and too often ignored. What you won't hear is that those barrage of rocket attacks on Israel don't always come from Hamas, certainly not the police stations struck, or the civilians caught in the middle, but from numerous other factions over which Hamas has limited control. Furthermore, the rocket attacks are often in retaliation for Israeli incursions (assassinations, raids, missile strikes) that repeatedly break the fragile cease-fire but go unreported and ignored in popular media. Even more sobering, is that while the Palestinian rocket attacks certainly create a sense of psychological terror, they are often so inaccurate and imprecise, they rarely kill any Israelis. The ratio of death isn't close to equal: somewhere slightly over 20 Israelis have been killed by rocket attacks since 2000; this latest offensive in Israel alone has killed 200 280 Palestinians. While we can certainly go into a long list of "who did what first" in this ongoing cyclical conflict, the idea that Israel has previously been showing "restraint" is a Likudnik propaganda myth parroted by popular U.S. media.

So far, world reaction has been typical from the usual list of players. The Bush administration, while cautioning against civilan casualties, has made Hamas the boogey-man and co-signed on Israel's assault--going as far as to call the hundreds of dead Palestinian policemen "thugs." The incoming Obama administration has mostly been quiet. The international community has at least shown some variance--from calls for immediate restraint to condemnation. The UN, as usual, is scrambling to come up with a coherent position, with the U.S. certain to veto any statement that holds Israel responsible or demands a cessation of hostilities. Meanwhile, as images of dead Palestinians are broadcast throughout the world, there is shock and outrage in the Muslim world, and a the entire region threatens to enter a new era of violence, vengeance and reprisals.

Below, as updates arrive, are news accounts of this recent crisis outside of the popular U.S. media, and from the side of the Palestinians, to give a more nuanced perspective.

The Electronic Intifada

The Electronic Intifada (EI), found at electronicIntifada.net, publishes news, commentary, analysis, and reference materials about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from a Palestinian perspective. EI is the leading Palestinian portal for information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its depiction in the media.

The recent Gaza-Israeli truce and ceasefire breaches. A brief timeline.

While there is an effort to place the onus on Hamas or Israel on the breakdown of the recent Egypt brokered ceasefire, history seems to portray a more complicated picture that ties in the West Bank, Disengagement, and other groups besides Hamas. Of course, any effort to place the onus here on one side or another really ignores the decades old historical context of this conflict into a facile moral comparison. However, it seems that there is a lack of proper retrospective into this ceasefire in the contemporary media.

Informed Comment- Juan Cole

Since the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, Israelis have killed nearly 5000 Palestinians, nearly a thousand of them minors. Since fall of 2007, Israel has kept the 1.5 million Gazans under a blockade, interdicting food, fuel and medical supplies to one degree or another. Wreaking collective punishment on civilian populations such as hospital patients denied needed electricity is a crime of war.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Anti-Immigrant Fervor & Hate Crimes

Anti-Immigrant political cartoon from the early 1900s, scape-goating immigrants (Eastern and Southern Europeans and Jews) as harbingers of disease, poverty and anarchy.

In the small Pennsylvania town of Shenandoah this past July, four teenagers beat to death Luis Ramiriz, a Mexican immigrant as they hurled racial taunts. After the teens beat Ramirez, one of them warned an eyewitness, “Tell your Mexican friends to get out of Shenandoah, or you’ll be laying next to him.” Arriving for what she thought would be a job interview, an undocumented worker was met by four men who took turns raping her. If she went to the authorities, they warned, they would have her deported. And just over a week ago, Ecuadorean immigrant Jose Sucuzhanay was walking in New York with his brother when they were attacked by assailants yelling anti-gay and anti-Latino slurs. Jose, a 31-year-old real estate agent, was beaten with an aluminum baseball bat. He died after five days in a coma.

Immigrant hate crimes are nothing new in our history. Whether it was attacks on the Irish in Northern cities, or those same Irish attacking black migrants from the South, scapegoating and violence against immigrants is ingrained in the American psyche. And, as is usually the case, documented or undocumented ("legal or illegal") disappears in a fog of ethno-phobia, where anyone who looks the part becomes prey. No one stops and asks for papers before the attacks commence, which reveals the oft-ignored aspect of anti-immigrant fervor--a distinct racial bias that can quickly escalate into hatred.

The reality is that in a society where immigration nearly always becomes tied to race, where hatred is whipped up into fear and scapegoating, and where media pundits base their ratings on nationalist rhetoric, these types of crimes are an almost inevitable outcome. The ugly truth is, as the editorial staff of La Prensa writes, "Hate does not emerge in a vacuum."

Related articles below.

Anti-Immigrant Fervor Translates to Terror for Women

Melissa Nalani Ross examines the harsh impact punitive immigration laws are having on women.

Railroading Immigrants

Kevin Bacon examines the repercussions, both legal and social, of the criminalization of immigration laws.

Why Is Lou Dobbs Minimizing the Impact of Hate Crimes?

Heidi Beirich of SPLC's Hate Watch, examines the role of media in anti-immigrant fervor and hate crimes.

Immigration Crack-Downs: A Little Bit of History Repeating

Edmundo Rocha of XicanoPwr.com examines the all-too familiar legacy of American anti-immigration policy.


Friday, December 19, 2008

The Other Human Rights

The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be rightly lauded as a landmark in international attempts to formalize the rights and responsibilities between governments and their citizens....however, we need only glance at a few statistics; almost three billion people live in poverty on less than US$2.50 a day, and the number of hungry actually increased this year to nearly one billion people. As the world reaped record levels of harvests in 2008, the most basic right to food is still denied to around 1 in 6 people on the planet.

Human Rights. Say the word and most of us think of numerous rights we celebrate as part of Western liberalism--freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to vote, freedom of expression and other democratic principles. We judge other countries on how they meet these rights, and are quick to condemn them when they fall short. But those rights only make up a part of human rights. Another set of human rights, we rarely talk about or ignore altogether. These are the rights that men, women and children be afforded enough food to eat, clean water to drink, habitable shelter, freedom from want or poverty. Those rights we have decided are more so privileges, to be pitied or helped along with charity, but not the same as the democratic ideals we uphold. So we can spend all our time righteously condemning the jailing of one dissident, and somehow ignore millions suffering from malnutrition, disease and other maladies. That many of these lack of human rights also relate to our standard of living--from free trade imbalances to resource exploitation--probably pushes us into greater silence.

The article below by Robin Willoughby, a Research Officer at Share the World's Resources (STWR), points out this glaring discrepancy in our notions of human rights.

Human Rights... For Who?

Human rights are increasingly viewed through the rhetoric of military intervention, democracy and political freedom, whilst the UN's pivotal role in securing social and economic rights in the developing world continues to be marginalised, argues Robin Willoughby.


10th December 08 - Robin Willoughby - STWR

The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be rightly lauded as a landmark in international attempts to formalize the rights and responsibilities between governments and their citizens. If we ask if the Declaration has proven a success, however, we need only glance at a few statistics; almost three billion people live in poverty on less than US$2.50 a day, and the number of hungry actually increased this year to nearly one billion people.[1] As the world reaped record levels of harvests in 2008, the most basic right to food is still denied to around 1 in 6 people on the planet.[2] But how did we get to this situation?

An answer to this can be simply put: on the international stage, the world's most powerful nations have prioritised those human rights associated with political freedom and peace and security, at the expense of those rights related to economic justice.

In the sphere of peace and security, the richest nations have used their political and military clout to pursue a highly defined and specific human rights agenda, highlighting the importance of themes such as intervention, democracy and political freedom. This trend is illustrated by the creation of such bodies within the United Nations (UN) as the Peace Building Commission and Counter-Terrorism Committee, as well as by the growth in interventionist peacekeeping missions. At the same time, more human rights bodies have been created under the purview of the UN Security Council, such as ad hoc tribunals to address human rights abuse in places such as Rwanda and Yugoslavia.[3]

International discussions on human rights are invariably focused on such themes as the danger posed by terrorism, threats to democracy in Zimbabwe or the need to invade Iraq in the name of human rights. This constricted view has also led to the widespread incorporation of military terminology into human rights semantics. ‘Humanitarian intervention' can be used to describe a military invasion; ‘muscular humanitarianism'[4] has become a label for aid and reconstruction work; and US-based human rights advocates recently described the need for a ‘peace surge'[5] to solve complex political problems in Darfur.

New actors have moved into a combined human rights and humanitarian fold. The EU is developing a rapid reaction force as part of its human rights-based foreign policy, while NATO has incorporated a ‘structural intervention force' to intercede in countries that are perceived as ‘failed states', humanitarian emergencies or threats to peace and security. The World Bank has also entered into this new arena, incorporating a reconstruction and intervention arm into its operations, as witnessed in the aftermath of the South East Asian Tsunami in 2006.

The result of this prioritisation of democracy, peace and security and ‘humanitarian' causes can be seen in a split between those human rights laws most palatable to the Global North, and those most urgently needed by the majority world. Unlike the one-sided prioritisation of individual human rights and security issues by the largest powers, economic and social rights have been severely sidelined.

The largest financial powers, led by the US and EU, now channel economic policy and implementation through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Through these bodies, their founding members are able to impose a vision of human rights and economic development that conforms to their own geo-strategic and political vision. According to this thinking, the removal of trade barriers, growth of capital accumulation and empowerment of business will lead to an inevitable ‘trickle-down' effect to the poor to secure human rights.

In contrast, the UN remains heavily marginalised as an actor within economic affairs. The UN agencies vested with the authority to ensure economic rights and freedoms have been downsized, marginalised or silenced as a voice in policy making. The UN Economic and Social Council - the UN body endowed with the authority to promote economic rights and full employment - has never been fully enabled to fulfil its mandate. Under pressure from the larger economic powers, much of its authority has passed to the preferred international institutions of the Global North: the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

A similar fate has befallen the UN Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTAD). During a series of conferences in the 1990s, the most powerful members of the UN - led by the US - threatened to cut funding to UNCTAD unless it conformed to the dominant ideological thinking of economic globalisation. Initially created in 1969 to offer a voice to the developing world and a negotiating forum on economic policy between rich and poor nations, the forum has now been sidelined and merely offers ‘technical advice' to poorer countries.[6]

Other UN agencies such as the UN Development Program (UNDP) are currently threatened with further funding cuts or marginalisation. Last year, under a barrage of criticism from the US media (described as ‘rising like Frankenstein's monster to challenge the power of the UN Secretariat'[7] and as ‘cavorting with a roster of thug governments'[8]) the US Congress cut its funding to the agency, diverting the money instead to UN bodies that fit with the US vision of development and human rights, namely the UN Entrepreneurship Initiative and UN Democracy Fund.

Such a marginalisation of the UN role in economic development has resulted in an almost complete lack of intellectual pluralism in discussions of our future direction to secure economic rights. The model of free-market economic growth and the ‘trickle down' theory of wealth to secure basic needs have been broadly accepted and institutionalised, at a time when poverty, inequality and hunger are increasing for the majority of the world according to the UN's own figures, in large part because of these very policies.

With human rights viewed through such a narrow prism, some analysts suggest that both the UN and other aid agencies could be perceived as a ‘Trojan Horse' for the economic and political interests of the most powerful nations.[9] Following from this logic, it is perhaps little surprise that there has been an increasing distrust of UN staff and humanitarian workers in the field.

Rather than a focussing on a narrowly imposed view of human rights, the anniversary of the UN Declaration gives us the opportunity to take stock of global priorities. An agenda that promotes peace, security and democracy has resulted in a form of ‘military humanitarianism' and security-based human rights that play into the hands of the most economically powerful. In addition, the promotion of the economic rights of the majority world has been institutionalised in the World Bank and IMF, leading to a highly ideological attempt to secure basic human rights.

To respond to these challenges, international governments should equally prioritise all of the rights and responsibilities in the UN Declaration to include those on economic justice, such as the right to adequate living and social protection, fair remuneration, and the right to adequate food and shelter. Such a holistic approach would help government and international bodies to tackle other complex human rights problems such as peace and security, terrorism and gender relations.

A rejuvenated UN has a key role to play in such a prioritisation of basic human rights. To achieve this aim, the UN should regain its independence as a forum for economic policy making. The organisation can only play a central role in global governance if it can act independently and incorporate different visions of economic development, rather than follow the ideological constraints of the World Bank and IMF. A much needed rethink on the future world economic direction would aid the UN's image in the eyes of those countries most in need of its help.

The recent coordinated bailout of the global banking system shows that if international governments feel there is sufficient cause then they can coordinate and act with remarkable speed. The ‘bottom billion' excluded from the benefits of economic globalisation are now waiting for their own government bailout. It is through these policies that we can achieve the wishes of the original drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: political pluralism, peace and security and true economic and social justice for all.

Robin Willoughby is Research Officer at Share the World's Resources (STWR), an NGO advocating for essential resources such as food, water and energy to be shared internationally. He can be contacted at: robin(at)stwr.org.


[1] Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion. ‘The Developing World Is Poorer Than We Thought, But No Less Successful in the Fight against Poverty', The World Bank Development Research Group, August 2008. See also Adam W. Parsons, 'Do the Poor Count? ', Share the World's Resources, 15 September 2008.

[2] FAO, ‘Number of Hungry People Rises to 963 Million', Press Release, 9 December 2008.

[3] See Aurelio Viotti, ‘In Search of Symbiosis: The Security Council in the Humanitarian Domain,' International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 89, No. 865, March 2007.

[4] Walden Bello, ‘The Rise of the Relief-and-Reconstruction Complex', Journal of International Affairs, Spring/Summer 2006, Vol. 59, No.2.

[5] Enough Project, ‘US Activists Call on Obama to Lead a ‘Peace Surge' in Darfur', 6 November 2008, retrieved 9 December 2008,

[6] See Boutros Boutros-Ghali, ‘Reinventing UNCTAD,' South Centre, 20 February 2006.

[7] Claudia Rossett, ‘Ban the Old Ways: UN Ethics Test,' in UN Lives on the Dark Side, IO Watch Note 2007.

[8] Claudia Rossett, ‘Ban the Old Ways: UN Ethics Test,' in UN Lives on the Dark Side, IO Watch Note 2007.

[9] Amii Omara-Otunnu, ‘Western Humanitarianism or Neo-Slavery?', Black Star News, 7 November 2007, see also Alex de Waal, ‘No Such Thing as Humanitarian Intervention,' Harvard International Review, 21 March 2007 and Noam Chomsky, ‘Humanitarian Imperialism: The New Doctrine of Imperial Right', Monthly Review, September 2008.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Juan Williams is a Jerk

Well he is. I remember coming to this conclusion after listening to his appearance once on Air America's The Al Franken Show, back in 2006. He was there pubbing his book Enough--yet another salvo from the Bill Cosby and Larry Elder crew, in which black America is dressed-down for numerous failings. But Williams got more than he bargained for, as Franken questioned some of his basic premises, as well as his associates at FOX News. Williams became defensive, especially when simple questions stumped him. Historian Peniel E. Joseph probably summed up the problems with Williams, his book, and his ilk, with the following review:

More than 40 years later, prophets such as Baldwin have all but vanished from intellectual discourse, replaced by a chorus of commentators whose gaze has turned decidedly inward. Lacking the political courage and personal compassion to confront the racism, segregation, poverty and violence that so disturbed Baldwin, these post-civil rights critics observe that, for black people, the enemy is us.

It seems however that at the least, Williams "blame-the-victim" routine doesn't end with black folks. In his role of "senior black correspondent" on FOX News, Williams appeared on the O'Reilly Factor to help condemn Iraqi journalist and shoe-thrower Muntader al-Zaidi, and by way all Iraqis, as unappreciative "ingrates."

But on a serious level, how many American lives have been sacrificed to the cause of liberating Iraq? How much money has been spent while they’re not spending their own profits from their oil? American money. So I just think it’s absolutely the act of an ingrate for them to behave in this way. Just unbelievable to me.

And yet Mr. Williams' reaction--given his track record--doesn't seem so unbelievable at all. This notion that the Iraqis are "ungrateful wretches" has been part of a bipartisan American political mantra adopted long ago, something I've touched on in more than one blog. In a page right out of Imperialism and Colonialism 101, the natives are supposed to smile, grin, scrape and give thanks for being "liberated"--at the barrel of a gun. And, like a modern day Gunga Din, the likes of Juan Williams answer the call to hold up that White Man's Burden. Williams had best hope, that when all is said and done, it doesn't end as badly for him as it did poor Gunga.

A more detailed account from ThinkProgress on Juan Williams and all the Iraqis should be "thankful" for below.

Juan Williams: Iraqi Protesters Are ‘Ingrate[s]’ Who Should Appreciate U.S. Invasion


Last night on “The O’Reilly Factor,” host Bill O’Reilly slammed Muntader al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, and said that if he had been there, he “would have physically taken the guy down.” Guest Juan Williams agreed, but he widened his condemnation to Iraqis in general, who he said were behaving like “ingrate[s]” for not appreciating what the United States has done for them:

WILLIAMS: But on a serious level, how many American lives have been sacrificed to the cause of liberating Iraq? How much money has been spent while they’re not spending their own profits from their oil? American money. So I just think it’s absolutely the act of an ingrate for them to behave in this way. Just unbelievable to me.

Last month, National Review’s Andy McCarthy was similarly frustrated by Iraqis’ failure to shower their occupiers with thanks and gratitude:

Thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions in taxpayer funds have been expended to provide Iraqis the opportunity to live freely. And this despite the facts that (a) the U.S. interest in Iraqi democracy remains tenuous…and (b) Americans were assured, when the nation-building enterprise commenced, that oil-rich Iraq would underwrite our sacrifices on its behalf. Yet, to be blunt, the Iraqis remain ingrates. That stubborn fact complicates everything.

Even President Bush is confused about Iraqis’ frustration, telling Bob Woodward, “I don’t understand that the Iraqis are not appreciative of what we’ve done for them.” Woodward explained, “He thinks we’ve done this magnificent thing for them. I think he still holds to that position.”

An Oxfam report from February 2008 put into startling focus what the U.S. invasion has really meant for Iraqis:

– More than four million Iraqis forced to flee either to another part of Iraq or abroad.
– Four million Iraqis regularly cannot buy enough food.
– 70 percent are without adequate water supplies, compared to 50 percent in 2003.
– 28 percent of children are malnourished, compared to 19 percent before the 2003 invasion.
– 92 percent of Iraqi children suffer learning problems, mostly due to the climate of fear.

The Brookings Institute’s Iraq index also notes that the national unemployment rate is somewhere between 25 and 40 percent. Fifty-six percent of Iraqis say things in Iraq are going “quite bad” or “very bad.” Sixty percent rate economic conditions as “poor” and 75 percent rate security conditions “poor.”


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Obama, Pakistan & Missile-Strike Diplomacy

Growing anger in Pakistan over US missile strikes

Yesterday, buried beneath news of shoe-throwing Iraqi journalists and Illinois political shenanigans, the AP displayed what has become an all too-familiar headline: US Missile Strike Suspected in 2 Deaths. Whether its missile strikes or military commandos, the casual invasion of Pakistani territory to fight America's "War on Terror" has become routinely commonplace. As the ritual goes, the US denies involvement but at the same time hails the killing of some key Taliban leader or international terrorist; the Pakistani government lodges a formal complaint about its sovereingty, yet its thought elements in its intelligence service (ISI) are working with the CIA; and (what is disputed by no one) civilian casualities and the destruction of civilian infrastructure takes place amidst whatever "victories" are won. Such collateral damage in what might be called the "Israeli counter-terrorism approach" is accepted as normal.

In this recent event, the AP notes the following:

The latest suspected U.S. strike set a house on fire, said Ajab Khan, a village resident who went to the scene. He said he saw two bodies brought out and three wounded people taken away in a vehicle. Suspected Taliban militants surrounded the house, Khan said — a common occurrence after such strikes.

Since August, there have been well over 30 of these attacks. And even if one or two actual "suspected taliban militants" are killed, so are regular people in these regions--who now live in constant terror of death from the skies at any moment. No independent account has been made of just who is killed by these strikes, or how many. In mid Nov. a strike killed some 13 people. The US, in their non-denial type denial, claims they were militants. The local people say many were just civilians. The truth? Who can say for certain. That's the problem with these types of policies. And sometimes, they go wrong--as in early June when a missile strike killed some 11 Pakistani soldiers.

To be certain, there is a certain grey area between sovereignty and dealing with non-state actors. However, despite such thorny technical aspects of international law, these continued incursions have hardly won any hearts and minds in the area, and some analysts have blamed such a ham-fisted approach for driving many into the growing Taliban insurgency. Others warn that each such act on the part of the US only destabilizes Pakistan's already weak government, a dangerous situation for a fledgeling nuclear power, who looks impotent as its supposed US ally continuously invades and bombs its population. Reacting to popular resentment at home, in Sept. Pakistani troops actually opened fire on approaching US commandos. The US forces turned back, lest some embarrassing international incident occur between these "allies."

Of course, at first glance, many may shake their heads and point yet again to another screw-up of the Bush administration. The only problem is, the recent president-elect signed up for this controversial policy as well.

As far back as early Aug 2007, Obama stated that he would be willing to attack inside Pakistan with or without approval from the Pakistani government. "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act," Obama stated, "we will." Just shortly after this statement, the US missile attacks and commando raids into Pakistan began in earnest.

Of course, no one is suggesting any direct link to Obama's statement and the Bush White House's foreign policy decisions. But it did place the then presidential candidate, looking to sound tough on terror, into a position where he could never condemn the attacks. While not condoning them either, he nevertheless stuck by his earlier assertion that he'd do somewhat the same thing. The only difference to be teased out was that he was talking specifically about "high-value terrorist targets," while the Bush administration seems to be going after anyone they get a scent on. Though, in the eyes of many in Pakistan who were shaken by Obama's statement, not certain such delicate differences amount to a great deal. It's uncertain what the new administration's stance will be towards Pakistan, and whether this missile-strike diplomacy will continue. Hopefully "change we can believe in" includes a more sensible approach.

Related article below:

Obama's Pakistan Problem: "No We Can't!"

Whether ordained by God, the crusade against communism or the Global War on Terror, many Americans believe we have a mandate to police the world, hold dominion over its supply of oil and natural gas and lead the way in whatever way we happen to be leading at the time. John F. Kennedy and his New Frontiersmen believed all this as they escalated their terrible war of choice in Southeast Asia. George W. Bush and his neoincompetents still believe they pursued America's destiny in Iraq. And, from their writing and speeches, Barack Obama and his national security team believe no less strongly in America's calling to put the world right.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shoe Heard Around the World

"This is your farewell--dog!"

This is a gift from the Iraqis,
This is the farewell kiss you dog.
This is from the widows, the orphans
and those who were killed in Iraq
(update 12/15/08)

Those were the words yelled by 28 yr old Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi as he took off his Western imported Nikes shoes and hurled them at a stunned President George W. Bush. The image of the act, which caused the US president to twice duck as if in mortal danger, has made its way around the world. And, depending on who you read, Mr. al-Zaidi is either crazy or a hero. Perhaps as he sat watching the man who was responsible for the wrecking of his country, Mr. al-Zaidi's thoughs were on the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died since the invasion; or maybe he was thinking of the 4 million refugees this war has created; or it could be he was dwelling on the deadly sectarian violence that was inflamed by the occupation; or perhaps his mind was on the senseless destruction of his nation's infrastructure. In truth, those are a fraction of the about 1000 other things that could have occupied Mr. al-Zaidi's mind. Whatever the case, in a bout of sanity (because its the rest of us that accept such affairs as normal who are truly "crazy"), he had a moment of heroic bravery. And in a country where to hit someone with shoes is a deep insult and sharp rebuke, he chose to react through a culturally appropriate theme. Ironic that this same act of defiance was used in April of 2003, that time on the statue of Saddam Hussein--which as it came toppling down was beaten with shoes by jubilant Iraqis.

At least that's how I'd like to imagine it. Who knows...

What's without a doubt however, is that the image of him hurling his weapons of choice in such defiance and anger will go down in history (already Iraqis across the country are picking up their shoes in solidarity), and speak volumes on the legacy of George Bush, his failed doctrine of preemptive war, and the sheer humanitarian madness he has inflicted on the lives of people such as Mr. al-Zaidi. And it should forever put that arrogant mantra (that only an imperialist could utter)--"the grateful Iraqis."

George W. Bush threw bombs at him. He threw back shoes. A fitting farewell.

More in an article below from NYT (Update 12/15/08)

December 15, 2008

Brother Explains Shoe-Tossing Iraqi Journalist’s Anger

By Riyadh Muhammad


In Sadr City, Maythem al-Zaidi stands before a photograph of his brother Muntader al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush. (Photo: Johan Spanner for The New York Times)

BAGHDAD — The brother of Muntader al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush during a joint press conference on Sunday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said Monday that he was “proud of his brother — as all Iraqis would be.”

Muntader al-Zaidi remains in Iraqi custody. When his brother, Maythem al-Zaidi, 28, called his cell phone at midnight, a man claiming to be one of the prime minister’s bodyguards answered. Maythem al-Zaidi said that the bodyguard threatened, “that they will get us all.”

Hitting someone with a shoe is a particularly strong rebuke in Iraqi culture. Although the president was uninjured, the incident overshadowed media coverage of the trip in the Arab world. And it has transformed Muntader al-Zaidi into a symbolic figure in the debate about the American military’s presence in Iraq.

Maythem al-Zaidi said his brother had not planned to throw his shoes prior to Sunday. “He was provoked when Mr. Bush said [during the news conference] this is his farewell gift to the Iraqi people,” he said. A colleague of Muntader al-Zaidi’s at al-Baghdadiya satellite channel, however, said the correspondent had been “planning for this from a long time. He told me that his dream is to hit Bush with shoes,” said the man, who would not give his name.

Muntader al-Zaidi appears to have a long-standing dislike of the United States presence in Iraq. He used to finish his reports by saying he was in “the occupied Baghdad.” His brother said that he hates the occupation so strongly that he canceled his wedding, saying: “I will marry when the occupation is over.”

The correspondent for Al Baghdadiya, an independent Iraqi television station, had previously been detained in November 2007 for two weeks by “a particular party” — his brother didn’t reveal whether American or Iraqi –- after videotaping the scene of an improvised explosive device that targeted an American Humvee. He was held again two months later for several hours by the American army without charges, his brother said. Other reports said he had been kidnapped by Shiite militants.

Muntader al-Zaidi was the head of the student union under Saddam Hussein and he earned a diploma as a mechanic from a technical institute before becoming a journalist. He worked at al-Qasim al-Mushterek newspaper, an Iraqi daily founded after the 2003 invasion, then he joined al-Diyar satellite channel, an Iraqi channel founded after the war. Two years later, he joined al-Baghdadiya satellite channel, another Iraqi channel, which is based in Cairo.

Maythem al-Zaidi contacted a judge to ask him if what his brother did is a crime under Iraqi law. The judge told him that he might serve two years in prison or pay a fine for insulting a president of foreign country unless Mr. Bush withdrew the case. “If they manage to imprison Muntader, there are millions of him all over Iraq and the Arab world,” Maythem al-Zaidi said.

Maythem al-Zaidi said has been contacted from about 100 Iraqi and foreign lawyers offering their services free of charge — including Saddam Hussein’s lawyer Khalil al-Dulaymi. When asked if he will accept Mr. al-Dulaymi’s services, he replied, “Why not, we are all Iraqis.”

The Rusafa office of Moktada al-Sadr organized a demonstration in Sadr City to support the shoe thrower. Across Iraq, everyone seems to have an opinion about the case.

According to his brother, Muntader al-Zaidi is “a calm man.” Both of his parents are dead, and he has 10 other siblings. Maythem al-Zaidi said that his brother is politically independent, but several people who know him mentioned that he was a Baathist who turned into a Sadrist after the war.

Meanwhile, al-Baghdadiya satellite channel’s Baghdad bureau chief is not responding to reporters to comment on the incident and he prevented all his staff of doing so.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Burning & Lootin' in Greece

There's something curious to be found, in the midst of a world gripped in economic and social turmoil, where governments are seen as oppressive and corrupt, when Western civilization's "reputed" progentior of democracy, goes up in flames. It began after a Greek police officer shot and killed a 15-year old teen in Athens for allegedly tossing an empty plastic bottle at him. Though from a wealthy family, the teen had become a member of the indie culture in Greece, a hangout for youth and dissenters who had grown apathetic and even disdainful of mainstream Greek society. Appropriating everything from anarchism to Hip Hop to British punk to Rastafarian gangja smoking, these youths represent a disaffection with the global free market culture and yet (ironically) have been influenced by it. Seen as subversives, they had long complained of being targets of law enforcement. Now that one of their own has died in a questionable police shooting, the reaction for the past few days has been rage and flames in major cities all over Greece.

All of this over one police shooting. Gotta admit, even though its hard to encourage destructive blind rage, them Greek kids is bout' it.

Below is the riot, in pictures. Burnin' and lootin' tonite.

More on the the riots:

Greece in Flames, Again.


Automakers, Bailouts & The Electric Car

The fate of the "Big 3" American automakers has been in the news alot lately. So far, its gone pretty much like this. Inept CEOs arrive in DC to beg for a bailout. Politicians pander to score points by berating their traveling methods. The right wing seizes on the moment to explicably blame unions for the mess, and float inaccurate claims about the pay of workers. Millions of jobs directly and indirectly related to the industry lay in the balance. And the entire farce turns into a dog-and-pony show in which the public is treated to the bizarre scene of corporate executives driving their own low-selling products to another begging session. The markets rally and fall as everything from Madison Avenue's ad revenues to automotive parts suppliers look on anxiously.

In what has become the Democrats ritualistic captiulation to even a lameduck Bush White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently reached an agreement on about $15 billion in bailout loans for the beleaguered auto industry--with the caveat, insisted by Bush, that the money come from funds previously allocated for--wait for it--greener cars.

Oh will the irony never cease. Because one of the Big 3 automakers now set to gain monies from that fund at one time produced a very green car---and also helped kill it. Ever heard of the Electric Car?

The 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? explores the creation, limited commercialization, and eventual demise (by self-destruction) of a battery operated electric vehicle known as the EV1. Produced by General Motors, the EV1 was was allowed to be leased by a few individuals in Southern California--many of them actors, like Tom Hanks, who went on David Letterman to sing its praises.

However, its successful roll-out and the threat it posed for a global oil dependent economy, sealed its fate. Like something out of a left-leaning Matt Damon-George Clooney thriller, an array of forces ranging from major auto manufacturers to the oil industry--helped along by powerful figures inlcuding Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney and others--came together to make certain that the EV1 would never make it into the mainstream public.

Before the car could even be marketed, General Motors suddenly and inexplicably recalled them, claiming they had no demand. Some of those leasing the cars offered to pay for them, but GM was adamant--demanding the return of their vehicles. Protests erupted with little media coverage, as some attempted to hold onto their EV1s. But eventually GM was successful. And the literally "confiscated" electric cars were not only retrieved but eventually crushed and destroyed. In a final insult, Exxon Mobil was allowed to buy the patent for the battery technology--assuring this threat would be nullified for the near future. The electric car disappeared from the roads of Southern California, and--until the 2006 documentary--remained unknown to most Americans.

Now here we are on the cusp of 2009. With a global recession, high gas prices, desperate automakers and a promise by a president-elect to move the US from oil dependency, the electric car seems as relevant as ever. One of the conditions of the recently proposed automaker bailout, should be that the Big 3 start looking to produce cars that are energy efficient, cheaper for buyers and less harmful to the environment. And someone in Congress should demand them--General Motors in particular--to come clean about who killed the electric car.

Link to film:

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Trailer for "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

Tom Hanks on David Letterman discussing the EV1.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Uncle Tom-Foolery

I'm not one to casually toss around the term "Uncle Tom." For one, it's actually an insult to the main protagonist of Harriet Beecher Stowe's work. Though a product of Stowe's own white religious "maternalism," Uncle Tom was certainly not what his name has come to signify in modern times. Second, I understand there are complexities in black thought--even when I strongly and vehemently disagree. Third, it's one of those terms that is such a "word-bomb" it tends to shut down any larger conversation. Same goes for "Sell-out" or "Oreo." I'd rather get into more complex discussions about people who act as surrogates for white patriarchy, etc.

Then I read the following. According to news reports:

Two prominent black conservatives are fighting to keep the Oval Office reserved for whites only by attempting to block the seating of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president. Justice Clarence Thomas placed the lawsuit challenging Obama's U.S. citizenship on the court calendar for a hearing.

The New Jersey case, Donofrio v. Wells...petitions that the Electoral College delay its ruling on seating Obama until his U.S. citizenship has been verified. An earlier Pennsylvania case, Berg v. Obama, sought to prevent the Democratic Party from nominating the Illinois senator on similar "citizenship" grounds.

Are. You. Frackin. Kidding. Me.

I'm officially going to break my own rules and declare:

"Somebody get me a glass of milk because here comes a big OREO!"--Cosmic Slop, adaptation of Space Traders by Derrick Bell.

(Updated 12/09/08)

Keeping the Oval Office for Whites Only
Les Payne

December 8, 2008

Two prominent black conservatives are fighting to keep the Oval Office reserved for whites only by attempting to block the seating of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president.

Justice Clarence Thomas placed the lawsuit challenging Obama's U.S. citizenship on the court calendar for a hearing. Sen. Obama and his campaign say that the president-elect has an authentic birth certificate showing that he was born in Hawaii, on Aug. 4, 1961, and is thus a "natural-born" U.S. citizen. Hawaiian officials agree.

The New Jersey case, Donofrio v. Wells, however, petitions that the Electoral College delay its ruling on seating Obama until his U.S. citizenship has been verified. An earlier Pennsylvania case, Berg v. Obama, sought to prevent the Democratic Party from nominating the Illinois senator on similar "citizenship" grounds.

Whereas Justice David Souter, acting for the court, dismissed the Berg case, Thomas distributed the Donofrio case to the other justices. The court was not expected to take the case.

Scholars of the court claimed Donofrio never stood much of a chance of getting a hearing. Of the 782 such cases justices distributed over the past eight years, the full court heard only 60. It is impossible to discern the workings of what passes for Justice Thomas' legal mind. He seldom asks questions from the bench and shows little judicial curiosity.

Thomas' eyes do light up, however, when a case involving race is argued. At such times, whether it's affirmative action or urban policing issues, the justice can be counted on unfailingly to stake a position in stark opposition to what most African-Americans would consider their best interests. This pattern renders the most powerful, black U.S. official a comedic figure of ridicule in the African-American community.

When idling for a lighthearted moment during Sunday sermons, for example, black ministers across America need only mention "Clarence Thomas" to trigger guffaws of shame among their congregations.

This burlesque image of Thomas emerged during his '91 Senate confirmation hearings where, in an ofttimes circus atmosphere, he survived attempts to block his nomination with Anita Hill's charges of bizarre, sexual harassment. The self-declared victim of a "high-tech" lynching withdrew within a tight knot of black conservatives and powerful right-wing, white zealots such as Rush Limbaugh.

The bitter Justice Thomas is seemingly bent these days on exacting revenge on the larger black community. It is perhaps in this light that we catch a glimpse of him stoking the Donofrio case as much for Limbaugh laughs as for the backhand it applies to the aspirations of African-Americans.

The case of Alan Keyes on the "stop Obama" campaign is a bit more personal but no less a matter of race and politics.

Keyes, who ran for president as a candidate of the American Independent Party, has filed a California lawsuit petitioning state electors to withhold certification pending verification of Obama's citizenship. Keyes argues that Obama must prove that he "does not hold citizenship of Indonesia, Kenya or Great Britain." His 18-page brief lays out scenarios where either could be possible.

In '04, conservatives rushed in the fiercely competitive Keyes from Maryland to challenge Obama's run for the Illinois Senate seat. After suffering a crushing defeat, Keyes avoided Obama, proclaiming that he would not "extend false congratulations to the triumph of what we have declared to be across the line."

Although claiming the slight was "not anything personal, his political animosity surfaced in the petition of "Ambassador Dr. Alan Keyes." Beyond the strictly personal, Keyes, not unlike Justice Thomas, has long shown a bitter disregard for what African-Americans take to be their best interests. Keyes served as an adviser to South Africa's propaganda machine during the apartheid era, and later as a token black in the Reagan State Department, where he vigorously opposed sanctions against that racist, white minority regime.

The "stop Obama" two-step by Keyes and Thomas is being played against a more sinister backdrop of powerful, right-wing interests seeking to override the will of the 66.8 million Americans who voted for the president-elect.

The tinkering that short-circuited the democratic process in 2000 appears to be at it again. Stay tuned.

*Update I* (12/08/08) Some people I sent this to went into freak-out mode. Calm down and take deep breaths people. This case isn't going anywhere. If it had any legs, McCain-Palin would have jumped on it and exposed this a long time ago. Even wackjobs like Michelle Malkin find the allegations ridiculous. The only thing this will hurt is Justice Clarence Thomas's chance to ever live peacefully in a black neighborhood...anywhere.

*Update II* (12/08/08) In Justice Thomas' defense, some have claimed he placed the matter on the Supreme Court docket simply to have it dismissed. However it had *already* been dismissed by Justice Souter, so what exactly would a second dismissal serve?

*Update III* 12/09/08

In the best dosage of good sense since Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court has declined to hear Justice Clarence Thomas.

There is however one case remaining, thus far, by a Pennsylvania lawyer named Phi Berg who challenges Barack Obama's citizenship on a claim that his Hawaii-birth certificate is a fraud. State officials have repeatedly dismissed such claims, but they persist. For a look at some of these die-hards who insist Barack Obama is some kind of "5th Columnist," see The Born Conspiracy by Mike Madden at Salon.com.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Enemies of the State

To friends in the protest movement, Lucy was an eager 20-something who attended their events and sent encouraging e-mails to support their causes.

Only one thing seemed strange.

"At one demonstration, I remember her showing up with a laptop computer and typing away," said Mike Stark, who helped lead the anti-death-penalty march in Baltimore that day. "We all thought that was odd." Not really. The woman was an undercover Maryland State Police trooper who between 2005 and 2007 infiltrated more than two dozen rallies and meetings of nonviolent groups.

The above quote is from a story from today's LA Times. According to recently released reports, officials in Maryland admit to using figures such as "Lucy" to spy on environmentalists, peace activists and even nuns. The article states that this information led state police to wrongly list "at least 53 Americans as terrorists in a criminal intelligence database."

Worse still, some of this information was shared "with half a dozen state and federal agencies, including the National Security Agency."In the Bush era, where rendition and secret torture sites are the norm, domestic spying has reached absurd heights--unfortunately sanctioned by even legislators who should know better. As with any such abuse of power, be it the McCarthy witch-hunts or COINTELPRO, the contrived "enemies of the state" tend to be those who dare issue dissent. While it may seem some bizarre lapse in judgment, understand that this all serves a purpose. Because every time some incredible story is released about Quakers being spied upon or someone being thrown from an airplane for wearing the wrong t-shirt, we all conform a bit more, and become just that more quiet.

Full article here.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Obama, Slavery & the White House- "Bottom Rail on Top"

Artist rendering of a shackled slave coffle being driven by the US Capitol

Slaves helped build the White House, both when it was built and later after it was burned down by the British during the War of 1812. Slaves helped build the US Capitol. One slave, Philip Reid, helped in the creation of the 12,000 lb bronze statue that now adorns the dome of the legislative building--the ironically enough named, Statue of Freedom. Slaves were sold and labored all throughout Washington DC. Some 12 American presidents owned slaves. Slavery was not abolished in Washington DC until 1862. And at one time, the mere inviting of a black man to the White House--from fiery abolitionists like Frederick Douglas to accomadationists like Booker T. Washington--was a source of controversy. President Woodrow Wilson not only had a private screening of D.W. Griffith's infamous Birth of a Nation in the White House--which depicted blacks as bestial rapists and the Ku Klux Klan as gallant heroes--but declared the film to be "like writing history with lightning....And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."

Now, in just over a month, a black family is set to call the White House home. Even a cynic like me has to admit, that's probably a bit more than just symbolic. That's historic.

It was one of the first thoughts I had when I dwelt on the many meanings behind the triumph of Barack Obama. I first heard it mentioned publicly by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano in a Democracy Now! interview the day following the election. "The White House will be his house in the time coming," said. "But this White House was built by black slaves. And I’d like, I hope, that he never, never forgets this." And it wasn't the only symbolic meaning that could be gleaned from history. Bill Moyers that Friday after the election pointed to a St. Louis rally Obama had held weeks earlier, that had drew a record 100,000 people. Lost in all of the election coverage, was that the rally was held on the steps of an old building that was once a courthouse--where slaves were auctioned and sold. In 1846, a slave named Dred Scott and his wife Harriett would appear on those courthouse steps to appeal their bondage. And though they would lose, their later Supreme Court appeal--Dred Scott decision--would become a part of history, fueling abolitionist sentiment towards a looming Civil War, eventual Emancipation, a century more of Jim Crow repression and the many acts of resistance that would shape the meaning of liberty, equality and democracy in America.

Barack Obama is interesting in that the only part of his lineage that experienced this drama was white. The other part, while dealing with the repression of British colonialism, can't point to a long history of American bondage, lynching, Jim Crow segregation and the dark sufferings of the Black Atlantic. Yet Obama chose to identify with that culture at an early age: partly by choice, and possibly partly by necessity--as America tends to baptize everyone into its racial landscape. And he chose to marry into that legacy through Michelle Obama, and consequently gave birth to children who are descended from it. And it is this complex drama of blackness that will call the White House home on Jan. 20th.

There's a memorable incident during the Civil War, where a black runaway slave who joined up with the Union army, catches sight of his former master--now a captured Confederate soldier. The slave saunters up to his previous owner, who sits stunned at this seeming reversal of fortune. "Hello massa," the ex-slave greets cheerfully, "Bottom rail on top this time."

Full article on topic below:

Slaves helped build White House, U.S. Capitol

By Susan Roesgen and Aaron Cooper


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In January, President-elect Barack Obama and his family will make history, becoming the first African-American first family to move into the White House -- a house with a history of slavery. In fact, the legacy of American presidents owning slaves goes all the way back to George Washington.

Twelve American presidents owned slaves and eight of them, starting with Washington, owned slaves while in office. Almost from the very start, slaves were a common sight in the executive mansion. A list of construction workers building the White House in 1795 includes five slaves - named Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel -- all put to work as carpenters. Other slaves worked as masons in the government quarries, cutting the stone for early government buildings, including the White House and U.S. Capitol. According to records kept by the White House Historical Association, slaves often worked seven days a week -- even in the hot and humid Washington summers.

In 1800, John Adams was the first president to live in the White House, moving in before it was finished. Adams was a staunch opponent of slavery, and kept no slaves. Future presidents, however, didn't follow his lead. Thomas Jefferson, who succeeded Adams, wrote that slavery was an "assemblage of horrors" and yet he brought his slaves with him. Early presidents were expected to pay their household expenses themselves, and many who came from the so-called "slave states" simply brought their slaves with them.

Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant all owned slaves but not during their time in office. James Madison, Jefferson's successor, held slaves all of his life including while he was in office. During the war of 1812 Madison's slaves helped remove material from the White House shortly before the British burned the building. Michelle Obama uncovers slaves in her family .

In 1865 one of Madison's former slaves, Paul Jennings, wrote the first White House memoir: "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of Life in the White House." In the book, Jennings called Madison "one of the best men that ever lived" and said Madison "never would strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it."

There were other presidents who treated their slaves less kindly.

James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor all owned slaves while they were in office. The last of these, President Taylor, said owning slaves was a Constitutional right and he said slave-owners like himself would "appeal to the sword if necessary" to keep them. The Civil War, of course, put that opinion to the test.

Now, the Obamas are moving into the White House.

"The apple cart has been turned over here when you have the Obamas -- the first African-American couple -- now actually management and you are having in some cases white Americans serving them," says presidential historian Doug Brinkley.

Michelle Obama learned this year that one of her great-great grandfathers was a slave who worked on a rice plantation in South Carolina. She says finding that part of her past uncovered both shame and pride and what she calls the tangled history of this country.

For many, the historic election on November 4 marked a new beginning.

Though Michelle Obama's ancestors had to come through the ordeal of slavery, "Her children are sleeping in the room of presidents," said Brinkley. "It's a very great and hopeful sign."