One of the thornier issues in American politics is rarely, if ever, discussed at the level of presidential contention.
In many states across the country -- including the "Live Free or Die" state of New Hampshire -- there is genuine disdain for the federal government policy that requires states to set the minimum age for purchasing and consuming alcohol at 21.
By threatening to withhold highway funds, the feds have forced states that historically have set the drinking age at 18 -- respecting the fact that if a young man or woman can be trusted to defend the nation as a member of the military, can be held responsible for his or her debts and can marry and have children, that individual should be trusted to buy a beer and drink it responsibly.
During Wednesday night's Democratic presidential debate at Dartmouth, a question from a New Hampshire voter put the drinking-age question on the table.
Would any of the candidates favor ending the practice of using federal highway funds to strongarm states into setting higher drinking ages -- on the theory that it is wrong to "trust (18 year olds) to make life and death decisions in the military" but not to drink responsibly?
Delaware Senator Joe Biden called the idea "counterproductive." Translation: "No."
No one applauded.
Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd replied, "I agree with Joe," and then somehow veered into a discussion of smoking.
Again, no applause.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson proposed a "dual approach," which sounded good but ended up as another "No."
New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards also indicated that they were in the camp that says an American can die for his or her country but not sip a cocktail.
Finally, two candidates, former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, answered "Yes."
Gravel said, "Anyone who will fight and die for this country should be able to drink."
Kucinich said, "Of course they should be able to drink at age 18, and they should be able to vote at age 16."
Applause and a few laughs.
Chances are that few votes will turn on the question of 18-year-old drinking.
But, it should be noted that, in addition to military service, marriage and money, 18 years olds are also trusted with the franchise. And the illogical response of most of the leading candidates may yet drive us all to drink.
Gravel and Kucinich got it right. If you can be trusted to fight and die, and vote, for your country, you can be trusted to buy a beer.
Updated on September 27
The situation in Myanmar (formerly Burma) continues to worsen with reports of escalating efforts by the government to violently repress ongoing nonviolent demonstrations. The protests, sparked by steep increases in fuel costs, are being led by Buddhist monks who have called for a reduction in commodity prices, the release of political prisoners, and national reconciliation. (Now that the government has decimated Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, the monks are the only organized force strong enough to challenge the junta.)
Accurate information is difficult to come by since there are few journalists currently operating inside the country. But there have been media reports of at least eight people killed, widespread use of tear gas against demonstrators, hundreds of arrests and beatings and the detention of at least 300 monks who have been active in the growing anti-government protests over the last month.
Watch this very rough video uploaded to YouTube this morning by an anonymous protester for a sense of what's going on.
Reports are also emerging of growing defiance in the face of the junta's counter-attack as tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and pro-democracy activists continue to take to the streets. As Kyi May Kaung writes at Foreign Policy in Focus, journalists estimate the number of protesting monks countrywide to be 500,000, which equals the number of soldiers in the junta's standing army. The mass demonstrations are the largest in the country since 1998, when thousands were killed as security forces employed lethal force against massive pro-democracy demonstrations.
Since then the Myanmar junta's human rights record has been deplorable. Amnesty International, which has done more work on the country than any other international organization, has documented the cases of at least 1,160 political prisoners who are being held in deteriorating prison conditions. Child soldiers and forced labor continue to be used. The use of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are common, especially during interrogation and pre-trial detention.
So, yes, Myanmar is ripe for revolt and the brave monks leading the opposition seem determined to not let this current moment pass. The world community has been unanimous in its criticism of the crackdown with the EU and President Bush calling for tougher sanctions against the Myanmar government. But sanctions have been in place for years and it's unclear how this latest round of international condemnation will force the SLORC's hand.
So grassroots solidarity efforts are more important than ever. You can take action now to prevent more violence by the military government. Send a message today asking the UN Security Council to oppose this violent crackdown and do everything in its power to prevent further bloodshed. Amnesty International is also organizing a series of demonstrations outside Burmese embassies and high-profile public locations calling for the Myanmar authorities to respect the right to peaceful protest. Check its website for info, see the Voices for Burma blog for on-going reporting on the protests as well as activist ideas and watch this space for more info on how you can help.
Here are two more interesting articles on the bane of our collective existence: body weight. First up is this New York magazine article, titled "The Scientist and the Stairmaster," which makes the provocative argument that there is very little correlation between weight loss and exercise. That's exceptionally bad news for someone who is pregnant, and required to gain at least 25 pounds.
The article is adapted from a new book, "Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease" by Gary Taubes, who writes:
"This is not to say that there aren't excellent reasons to be physically active, as these reports invariably point out. We might just enjoy exercise. We may increase our overall fitness; we may live longer, perhaps by reducing our risk of heart disease or diabetes; we'll probably feel better about ourselves. (Of course, this may be purely a cultural phenomenon. It's hard to imagine that the French, for instance, would improve their self-esteem by spending more time at the gym.) But there's no reason to think that we will lose any significant amount of weight, and little reason to think we will prevent ourselves from gaining it."
Next is a new ad campaign by the Italian label Nolita. It features a severely anorexic actress posing naked, accompanied by the slogan, "No Anorexia." French actress Isabelle Caro weighs a little over 68 pounds, and looks simply hideous, at least to the untutored eye, though Italian medical experts claim the ad will actually encourage young girls to look more like Caro. I find that hard to believe, but take a look and decide for yourself.
The UAW's national strike against General Motors came to a quick end at 4 a.m. today, with the announcement that a tentative agreement had been reached. Though most details of the agreement are not yet available, it does include a provision for the creation of a VEBA health care trust. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger has assured his membership and the New York Times that the deal "will absolutely protect their jobs and keep jobs from being reduced." But he has not provided specific information on the job security guarantees the union was seeking when it walked out Monday morning.
According to a report in the Detroit Free Press, the deal also includes an attrition program to clear out current workers whose positions will be re-classified as "non-core" and their wages reduced, while implementing a two-tier wage scale and benefits packages for new hires.
If this is the case, and pending any further details that emerge on the agreement, the UAW leadership would appear to have acquiesced on GM's two most significant demands--the VEBA trust and the two-tier wage plan--and will now have to see if it can sell its membership on a disappointing contract that is sure to enflame dissidents within the union who have already been critical of the way Gettelfinger has handled negotiations.
Assuming the contract is ratified, expect Ford and Chrysler to quickly follow suit with their own health care liabilities; and the UAW's already diminished position in the domestic auto industry to be rendered even more irrelevant after effectively selling out future auto workers for the sake of the current membership.
Corruption in the Iraqi government--it's classified information. So says the State Department.
In preparation for a September 27 hearing on corruption within the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Representative Henry Waxman, who chairs the House government oversight and reform committee, sent a request--and then a subpoeana--to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for documents and witnesses. He wanted the State Department to turn over various documents, including a copy of a secret report prepared by the Baghdad embassy that details rampant corruption within the Iraqi government. He also demanded that the State Department make available to his investigators three officials in the department's Office of Accountability and Transparency who have worked on the issue of Iraqi corruption. [UPDATE: The hearing has been postponed until October 4.]
The State Department refused to turn over the documents and said no to the interview requests. Then it slightly changed its tune. Joel Starr, the deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, notified Waxman that his committee could interview the State Department officials, but anything they had to say about corruption within the Iraqi government would be classified--meaning Waxman could not disclose that information to the public.
How can information about criminal waste and fraud in another government be considered a state secret in the United States?
On September 25, an irritated Waxman fired off a letter to Rice, detailing his exchange with her department:
The State Department is taking the position that investigators for the Committee may speak with these individuals, but the investigators may not ask them questions that could embarrass the Maliki government unless the Committee agrees to refrain from any public discussion of their answers. State Department officials explained that any information about corruption within the Maliki government must be treated as classified because public discussions could undermine U.S. relations with the Maliki government.
This absurd position was confirmed in an e-mail sent to Committee staff....In the e-mail, the State Department provided a description of the "redlines" that its employees may not cross in unclassified interviews scheduled....According to the State Department, the following information is now classified:
Broad statements/assessments which judge or characterize the quality of Iraqi governance or the ability/determination of the Iraqi government to deal with corruption, including allegations that investigations were thwarted/stifled for political reasons;
Statements/allegations concerning actions by specific individuals, such as the Prime Minister or other GOI [Government of Iraq] officials, or regarding investigations of such officials.
The scope of this prohibition is breathtaking. On its face, it means that unless the Committee agrees to keep the information secret from the public, the Committee cannot obtain information from officials in the Office of Accountability and Transparency, about whether there is corruption within the Iraqi ministries, how extensive the corruption is, or whether the corruption is funding the insurgency and undermining public confidence in the Iraqi government. The Committee also cannot obtain information about whether Mr. Maliki himself has been involved in corruption or has intervened to block corruption investigations of Iraqi officials close to Mr. Maliki.
There is already plenty of information on the public record about corruption within the Maliki government. I first disclosed that secret embassy report in this column. And former Iraqi Judge Radhi al-Radhi, whom Maliki forced out as chief of Iraq's lead anticorruption agency, has said in an exclusive interview with me that Maliki thwarted many of his anticorruption investigations and that the Maliki administration is so rife with corruption it ought to be scrapped. Radhi also pointed out that corruption within the Iraqi government has produced funding for insurgents.
The State Department--which has abandoned Radhi, whom it once supported--is trying to prevent Radhi's charges from receiving wider notice. It obviously does not want its own records and officials to be used publicly to confirm his claims. (Radhi will be a featured witness at the Waxman committee's hearings.)
In his letter to Rice, Waxman complained that when his staff conducted a phone interview with Vincent Foulk, one of the Office of Accountability and Transparency officials, Foulk was not permitted by other State Department officials on the call to say whether there is extensive corruption in Iraq, whether Maliki and other Iraqi ministers have blocked corruption probes, and what impact corruption within the Iraqi government is having on U.S. efforts. Foulk told Waxman's staff that he had never previously heard of a State Department official being prevented from talking about corruption in Iraq.
During this interview, Waxman's staffers read Foulk a statement Rice had made in October 2006 praising Maliki for taking action against corruption. Foulk was asked if he agreed with Rice's remarks. Foulk replied he could not answer the question because his opinion is classified information. In his letter to Rice, Waxman griped, "Your position seems to be that positive information about the Maliki government may be disseminated publicly, but any criticism of the government must be treated as a national security secret...If there is widespread corruption within the Maliki government, this is information that both Congress and the public are entitled to know."
The Bush administration apparently believes otherwise. It's holding on to documents; the State Department retroactively classified the embassy report on corruption. It has essentially imposed a gag order on State Department officials knowledgeable about corruption in Iraq. In doing so, it has stretched--and possibly abused--its power to classify information. Why go to such lengths? Because George W. Bush's Iraq policy--at least for the moment--depends on the Maliki government. But if that government is thoroughly corrupt and dysfunctional, Bush's policy doesn't make sense. And that's the real secret the Bush administration wants to keep.
Aurora, Illinois has become ground zero in the fight for women's access to reproductive health care.
Last Thursday a federal judge denied Planned Parenthood's request for an injunction that would have allowed its new clinic in Aurora to open as scheduled. The city of Aurora has refused to allow the new facility to begin operating until it completes an investigation into how the clinic obtained building permits. The refusal came after hundreds of anti-abortion activists rallied outside the facility and crowded into city hall meetings to oppose the clinic.
Ann Friedman offers the most succinct and accurate summary of events I've found in an excellent piece at the American Prospect Online:
"Hoping to avert the kinds of protests that kept other new abortion clinics from opening (like when a contractor backed out of building a new Planned Parenthood facility in Austin in 2003), Planned Parenthood applied for the building permits under the name of a subsidiary, Gemini Office Development LLC. They disclosed to the planning and zoning board that the building would be occupied by a medical office, but did not specify it would be an abortion provider.
After anti-choice activists discovered that the new medical office building in Aurora was to be a reproductive health clinic, they sounded a clarion call to keep the facility from opening. Under pressure from the anti-choice movement, the city denied Planned Parenthood's occupancy permit. And yesterday, a judge declined to grant a temporary occupancy permit, meaning the new clinic (which was supposed to open on Tuesday) will remain shuttered. At the hearing, the Aurora city attorney argued that this is about land use and permit regulations -- not about restricting abortion access. Planned Parenthood lawyers responded, 'We wouldn't be here if this was a foot care clinic.'"
The ruling has forced Planned Parenthood to cancel thirteen appointments that were scheduled for today. "Although the case is still open, today's decision prevents access to important health care services that the new clinic would offer including sexually transmitted disease treatment, breast cancer screening, and abortion care," said Vicki Saporta, President and CEO of the National Abortion Federation.
Check out this video to hear why many residents of Aurora are desperate for the clinic.
After watching go to the PP Aurora site for ideas on other actions to take:
** Sign a petition affirming the clinic's right to open and operate.
**Donate your time, email email@example.com for more information.
**E-mail the Aurora City Council
**E-mail a Letter to the Editor
**Request a "This Family Supports Planned Parenthood" yard sign
**Make a donation to support Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood is also asking people to call Aurora's Mayor and City Council to insist that they allow Planned Parenthood to serve the women of Aurora by opening the clinic.
Mayor Tom Weisner's office: (630) 844-3612
Aurora City Council: (630) 844-3619
Aurora City Hall: (630)264-4636
What's happening in Aurora today is not an isolated situation. It's part of a continuing war on women's access to abortion services across our country. Planned Parenthood is on the battlefield organizing the counter-attack and it needs all the support it can get.
On Wednesday the conservative Heritage Foundation took a short break from opposing the state children's health insurance program to ponder the tired conservative complaint that liberals control Hollywood. Steve Finefrock, founder of an outfit called the Hollywood Conservative Forum, and a screenwriter whose credits include Department of Homeland Security films, dramatized this right-wing tragedy to about a dozen concerned conservatives.
"All of life is a three-act structure," Finefrock informed them. In that spirit, his speech's first act brought back the age-old lament that "Hollywood is in the grip of PC liberals."
"If you're a conservative [in the movie business]," Finefrock said. "they block your career." He didn't say who "they" are. Finefrock estimated that more than one-third of Hollywood is conservative but like Communists in the McCarthy era they are afraid to speak out. Radical-turned-Republican David Horowitz has made a lucrative career out of this sort of moaning.
Finefrock's second act optimistically pointed out that conservatives have had success storming other cultural battlefields. In recent years, he said, "we've penetrated six areas liberals have dominated for years: journals of opinion, think tanks, campaigns on college campuses, books and publishing, broadcast news and commentary, and blogs. Hollywood is the seventh seal that needs to be broken."Finerock explained this was indeed an intentional reference to, "a famous Ingmar Bergman film all the intellectuals love."
But how to penetrate? That is the question (this is an intentional reference to a famous play that all the intellectuals love). The crowd eagerly anticipated Finefrock's third act.
But the screenwriter hadn't figured out an ending. "Nobody knows what works," he said. "It's like drilling for oil--you don't know when you're going to hit a gusher." It turns out Finefrock is awaiting someone else to lead conservatives into the promised land.
When it comes to this whole scandal regarding graft in US military contracts, I like to muse over the strange mea culpa put forward by military brass who admitted to The New York Times yesterday that officers in Kuwait may have been a little under-trained.
That's why they accepted bribes when they shouldn't have. They should have had more contracting experience and training, military officials explained, then they would have learned that skimming approximately $6 billion off the top of awards was the wrong thing to do. (Apparently, this is not covered in Contracting 101.) Further, brass says, they should have annual ethics training to...what? Remind them that 365 days may have passed, but that stealing is still wrong?
"Jena is America," says Alan Bean, speaking of the Louisiana town where six black students are looking at decades in jail for a schoolyard brawl while white kids are facing nothing for hanging up nooses. Jena is America in the sense that the unequal justice there is not unique. There are "Jena Sixes" behind bars in every state. But it isn't America in the sense that the country as a whole has had no trouble at all ignoring Jena.
Bean is a Baptist minister from Texas who formed Friends of Justice in response to the now infamous Tulia drug sting of 1999 in which over half of Tulia's black males were convicted on the uncorroborated word of a corrupt and racist undercover cop. He was instrumental in getting that story out. In January he got busy in Jena. By that time, a young white man had already been beaten up and six young black students had been indicted, originally on attempted murder charges. One of the six, Mychal Bell, was legally still a juvenile when he was convicted of attempted second-degree murder with a deadly shoe. While five were released on bail, Bell remains in jail.
"If the media wasn't watching what was going on then every last one of those kids would be in jail," one of the Jena mothers, Tina Jones, told the Nation's Gary Younge.
Jones is generous. The truth is, "the media" haven't been watching. Black radio has been listening, and the black blogosphere's been buzzing, but the white "mainstream" and the white liberal media woke up to this story about a minute ago.
August 2006: that's when the story began, when a black high school student requested permission to sit under a whites-only schoolyard tree. The next day, three nooses showed up hanging there. The following week, black students staged a protest and Jena district attorney Reed Walters, warned them at a school assembly: "I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen." That was after that same DA and school officials dismissed the noose incident as a "prank." The December schoolyard fight took place after months of incidents in which the whites involved were charged with misdemeanors or not at all while the blacks drew various felony charges.
Bean says he started feeding stories to the Chicago Tribune, the BBC and the blogosphere back in April. "Some stories ran in May, but they didn't catch. No magazines picked up. No nightly news. The New York Times studiously ignored it," he says. With the notable exception of Jordan Flaherty at Left Turn Magazine, lawyer Bill Quigley and a few others the so-called "progressive" white press was just as AWOL as the "mainstream." No turning point came until protests swelled in July. Democracy Now and the Final Call ran special reports after Bell was convicted (a conviction that has since been overturned although he remains in jail.) The Nation first mentioned Jena in its pages in the October 8 issue, which hit the stands after a 20,000 strong national protest march. (A couple of mentions appeared online in September.)
By every account I've heard, the people who had sufficient fire in their belly to wake up before dawn and bus their way into Jena September 20 were African American -- around 90 percent. Probably close to that same percentage had a story to tell about a family member or neighbor who's been touched by the criminal injustice system. "White liberals care, but they just don't feel it in anything like the same way," says Bean. "There's a massive experience gap."
James Rucker of the action-alert network, Color of Change, sent out an email alert July 17 after hearing about the story from Bean and his online subscribers. On the media front, he thinks there's good news and bad: "We've seen the power of black radio and the black netroots who really came into their own on this story, but it hasn't captured the imagination of the left media in the way that I would have hoped." (Subscribe to ColorofChange.org.)
We are, after all, talking about Louisiana. On August, 31, when the two hangman's nooses were found hanging in the tree, journalists were all over the Gulf Coast marking the one-year anniversary of Katrina. In the following weeks, when residents started holding lonely rallies, regional papers in Alexandria, Shreveport and Baton Rouge carried word, as did Jena's own Jena Times.
Is it too much to expect that following the burst of attention to institutional racism that accompanied the broken levee disaster and Katrina, white America's sensors might have been unusually attuned to the sort of injustice revealed at Jena? Or even, to expect that journalists might have been on the look out?
The thing is, media, and the movement pressure it could have built, could have made a difference. If Jena High School and the Jena DA had felt pushed to take on the noose-hangers a year ago, one white student, Justin Barker, might never have been beaten by anyone and six young black men (and one boy) might be heading to college today, not to courtrooms. The whole Jena story could have been different if one District Attorney, not to mention the US Justice Department had felt the push to do what would have been right -- and kick Jim Crow out of the 21st Century.
It's late but it's not too late, for all of America to act. In fact, truly massive public attention is needed right now as a white backlash builds in Louisiana. While Air America and National Public Radio move on, David Duke and his radio listeners are all over the Jena story. Last week, the former Ku Klux Klan leader announced his support for Jena's white residents (who voted overwhelmingly for him when he ran for Louisiana governor in 1991.) Since the civil rights demonstrators left, Jena familes are alone against the white supremacists who have started appearing. Over the weekend, a neo-Nazi Web site posted the names, addresses and phone numbers of some of the six black teenagers and their families and urged followers to find them and "drag them out of the house." A white driver was arrested in a nearby town, driving a pick up with nooses tied to the back fender. White extremist web sites and blogs are exploding and it's not just Klansmen and neo-Nazis posting hateful things.
It's late but it's not too late to answer: Is Jena America?
Join Amnesty International's call for a Justice Department investigation.
Sign Color of Change's petition drive.
LAURA FLANDERS is the host of RadioNation and the author of Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians.
Listen up. Can you hear the drums beating for a third war?
The neocons are in a bubbling rage over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University. The pro-surge propagandists at Freedom Watch labeled the Iranian leader a "terrorist" in--of all places--a New York Times ad. Neocon godfather, Giuliani advisor and "World War IV" author Norman Podharetz went to the White House recently to urge President Bush to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities.
And now Senators Jon Kyl and Joe Lieberman, who's already advocated attacking the country, are introducing a sense of the Senate resolution, possibly up for a vote today, that accuses Iran of fighting "a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq." [SEE UPDATE AT END]
The resolution states that "it is a vital national interest of the United States" to prevent Iran from turning Iraq's Shiite militias into a "Hezbollah-like force" and says that US policy should "combat, contain and roll back the violent activities and destabilizing influence inside Iraq of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its foreign facilitators such as Lebanese Hezbollah, and its indigenous Iraqi proxies." To accomplish this task, Kyl and Lieberman advocate "the prudent and calibrated use of all instruments of United States national power in Iraq." Finally, the resolution dubs Iran's largest military branch, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, "a foreign terrorist organization."
It's clear where this resolution is going. The Council for a Livable World, one of the more astute peace groups in Washington, says it "could wind up being another in a long line of blank checks provided to the Executive Branch in the mold of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the authorization to use force in Iraq." The line advocating the "prudent and calibrated" use of US power is "a loophole is big enough to drive an aircraft carrier or a fleet of planes through."
Moreover, the case for the next war is as shaky as the last one. "The Kyl-Lieberman amendment is a resolution based almost entirely on falsepremises," the Council states. "The resolution only quotes questionable and unsubstantiated assertions provided by the US military about Iranian involvement in Iraq."
The Council warns that actions like these from the US Senate, while still only symbolic, could lead to serious blowback of the worst kind. "Provocative measures such as the Kyl-Lieberman amendment can lead to a tit-for-tat escalation resulting in military confrontation between the US and Iran. There are no good military options for solving our disagreements with Iran. Military action would only result in disastrous and unintended consequences for U.S. and Israeli interests. If we have learned nothing else from Iraq, it is that there are limitations to the use of military force."
The only thing that neocons have learned from Iraq is that Joe Lieberman should be secretary of state.
UPDATE: A revised resolution, which deleted the sections referenced above about combating, containing and rolling back Iran's influence inside Iraq and using all instruments of US power to do so, passed the Senate this afternoon by a vote of 72-22. Harry Reid, Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer voted aye. Of the '08 Dems, so did Hillary Clinton. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden voted no. Barack Obama missed the vote.