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The Downing of Flight 17 Should Trigger Talks, Not More Violence

MH17 Flight

A piece of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 lies in the grass near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, July 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

The violence in eastern Ukraine has now claimed more innocent victims, with 298 dead in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Children, scientists headed to an AIDS conference, families on vacation—their deaths add to the hundreds of civilian casualties and tens of thousands of refugees victimized by the spreading conflict, which the Kiev government is now escalating.

The shooting of a civilian airliner is clearly a tragic mistake that no one wants to own, but that comes all too often in war zones. Currently, the Dutch government—193 of its citizens perished in the crash—said it “would hold off assigning blame as it pursues its top priorities of recovering the victims’ bodies and conducting an independent investigation of the crash site in eastern Ukraine.”

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However, in the United States, the tragedy has triggered a ferocious chorus of media and political condemnation of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Putin is called the “puppet master” or worse, with commentators asserting that he can end the war at will. The separatist militias in the east are scorned as Moscow’s pawns. The Kiev government’s bombing of its own cities and people is treated as a necessary response to Russian provocation.

All this ignores the context of this crisis and worse seems designed to fan the flames of the conflict. Already the United States has imposed new sanctions on Russia and is pushing its reluctant European allies to join. The Russians have responded with sanctions of their own. The Ukrainian government’s attacks in the eastern regions continue, with US aid and involvement certain to increase.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

 

Read Next: Scientist and activist committed to ending AIDS perishes on MH17

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Tom Tomorrow

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Four Little Boys and the Price of Play in Gaza

Bakr children

Palestinians mourn over the lifless bodies of four Bakr Children. July 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

When the Palestinian national team secured entry into the 2015 Asia Cup, winning the right to play in an international tournament for the first time in its eighty-six-year history, crowds gathered by the hundreds to dance, play music and watch the triumph of their national team on large movie-sized television screens on the beaches on Gaza. The oceanfront represents the illusion of freedom for a land otherwise encircled by walls and checkpoints. People often gather on the beach to celebrate because it is a refuge from densely populated squalor that defines so much of the land they have been compelled to call home. This is especially the case for children.

That brings us to the four Bakr boys. There was Mohamed Ramez Bakr, eleven years old, Ahed Atef Bakr and Zakaria Ahed Bakr, both ten, and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, nine. They were all killed by an Israeli Defense Forces military strike while playing on the beach in surroundings as familiar to them as a corner playground.
 The first shell sent them running. The second took their lives. Existing in a land where are you are always underfoot, the beach is one of the precious few places a child can freely roam. In Gaza City, which sewage and pollution could make unlivable by 2020, according to a United Nations study, this is one of the only places where the air feels clean in your lungs. In a land where soccer fields are constantly under bombardment—Israel says that parks and stadiums are popular places for Hamas to launch rocket attacks—the beach is where you go to play.

The Bakr boys were killed in an area they believed to be safe. Mohamed’s mother, grieving at the hospital, was quoted by CNN as saying, “Why did he go to the beach and play—for them to take him away from me?” Several reporters on hand were shocked at what happened. Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC, tweeted: “4 Palestinian kids killed in a single Israeli airstrike. Minutes before they were killed by our hotel, I was kicking a ball with them #gaza.” After this, Mohyeldin was taken off the air, and was only allowed to return following an online campaign launched to defend him. The reasons behind NBC's decision to pull him and then return Mohyeldin to Gaza are still very much in depute. Whatever the cause, Mohyeldin was doing the kind of journalism that forced people to see Palestinians as actual human beings.

* * *

When people write, tweet, and message me with their unquestioned belief that Hamas is using the children of Gaza as human shields, I often wonder whether they make these assertions out of unknowing ignorance or out of a deeper kind of “let them eat cake” cruelty.

Maybe they don’t know that these same “human shield” accusations, made in 2008 and 2009 during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead bombing of Gaza, were found to be without evidence by Amnesty International.

Maybe they don’t know that to even speak of “human shields” in Gaza is absurd, because the Strip is fenced-in and residents have little right to come and go as they please. Maybe they don’t know that Gaza City is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, with most of Gaza’s 1.8 million people living in the urban heart of Strip.

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People in the United States may be ignorant about these overcrowded conditions, but the Israeli military commanders are certainly not. Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal quote that if the poor were starving and without bread, we should “let them eat cake,” has become Netanyahu’s “let them find shelter.” He says, “Let them evacuate” when the only truly safe place is on the other side of a checkpoint. Someone fleeing one missile strike may be heading directly into another.

Perhaps these four little boys are examples of the “telegenically dead Palestinians” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told us we should disregard. Or perhaps what Netanyahu fears is people who see nothing “telegenic” about dead children. Perhaps he knows that there are people who cannot imagine anything more human than a group of children playing on the beach, and cannot imagine anything more inhumane than taking their lives from the sky.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on Cowardice, The NBA and #FreePalestine

Scientist and Activist Committed to Ending AIDS Perishes on Flight MH17

Hayes Kim All In

Several passengers who perished on flight MH17 were HIV researchers en route to a conference in Melbourne, where they believed their discussions could end the AIDS epidemic. “There was a real sense of profound optimism going into this conference,” The Nation’s executive editor Richard Kim told Chris Hayes on All In Friday. One researcher in particular who was aboard the flight, Joep Lange, believed that the medical community possessed the necessary knowledge required to end AIDS—they only lacked the resources. “That struggle, to get the political will and human resources—that was Dr. Lange’s entire life. He was not just a brilliant researcher and scientist. He was an activist,” said Kim.

—Hannah Harris Green

Fuzzy Math From Iran Hawks

Iran flag

(Blondin Rikard, Creative Commons)

Being a Washington analyst means never having to say you're sorry. And so it has been throughout the diplomatic process with Iran, where naysayers who stridently opposed talks have found themselves dealing with the reality of negotiations over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program by not dealing at all with their past records on the matter.

The best recent example of this phenomenon can be found in the latest report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), one of the think-tank's whose work and influence was discussed at length by myself and Eli Clifton in a feature for last week's edition of The Nation.

Only days before Iran and world powers announced an extension of talks for an additional four months, FDD put out a report seeking to quantify the sanctions relief Iran had reaped from the first six months of the interim deal. What stands out most about the report is its fuzzy math, which leads it to fuzzy conclusions.

FDD's report, "Sanctions Relief: What did Iran Get?," posited that Iran's sanctions relief has been greater than the Obama administration has let on. FDD offers that Iran has received some $11 billion in direct relief and even more in indirect relief—that is, the benefits Iran has accrued from its stabilizing economy (more on that in a bit).

That figure is at odds with what FDD's executive director Mark Dubowitz predicted it would be after Iran and world powers inked an interim agreement in November, laying the groundwork for the current talks. At the time, the US left most of its sanctions in place but lifted its bans on certain types of transactions and unfroze a portion of Iranian assets abroad. The Obama administration said the deal would bring the Iranians about $7 billion in relief. Dubowtiz argued that direct sanctions relief alone—leaving aside any additional indirect benefits—would be closer to a windfall of $20 billion.

Now that the first six months of the interim agreement has run its course, Dubowitz revised his numbers downward by nearly half, to the $11 billion figure for direct sanctions relief. When asked about the discrepancy on Twitter, he deflected by claiming the distinction between direct and indirect relief—one he’d readily made in November, with inflated numbers—was “artificial.”

Even the $11 billion number needs to be carefully considered. For instance, in his recent analysis, Dubowitz includes the profits Iran has reaped from its sale of condensates, a liquid product formed when certain types of natural gas are pumped to the surface. FDD estimates that condensates accounted for about $5 billion of Iranian exports, a figure that was lumped into the $11 billion in direct relief.

But condensates, as FDD admits later in its analysis, were not exempted from sanctions by the Joint Plan of Action signed by Iran and world powers in Geneva in November. Instead, Iran is able to sell condensates because of what FDD calls a"loophole" in a 2011 sanctions law. Without the inclusion of $5 billion in condensate exports, Dubowitz's figure of $11 billion in sanctions relief quickly falls below the Obama administration’s initial estimate of $7 billion.

What's more, FDD's analysis veers towards portraying all of Iran's economic gains as stemming from the November deal. But that discounts the role played by the change in Iranian leadership last summer. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, the administration of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani,  has taken steps—such as raising interest rates and cutting subsidies—to stabilize the economy independent of any sanctions relief.

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Notably, Dubowitz pooh-poohed Rouhani's election as unimportant, a contention rendered implausible not only by the Iran's improved economic management, but also by what all parties regard as serious Iranian engagement on the nuclear file.

The upshot of the FDD analysis is that the US must keep up pressure on Iran. With his past support for using sanctions as a tool of regime change—an all-too-frequent goal of sanctions hawks—one has to wonder if Dubowitz, as he claims, really wants for diplomacy to succeed or not.

 

Read Next: Eli Clifton on the Billionaire Funders of the Anti-Diplomacy Lobby. 

China Bars Sex Worker Rights Activist From Traveling to International AIDS Conference

Ye Haiyan

Sex workers' rights advocate Ye Haiyan

With a billion consumers, China is a land where everything can be bought and sold, and sex is no exception. Alongside pirated movies and blue jeans, the exchange of carnal pleasures for money is a pillar of China’s capitalist boom. But its workers toil underground, often in extraordinarily abusive conditions. Now, a lone voice for China’s sex workers is being gagged on the eve of her appearance at the International AIDS Conference in Australia—an echo of the painful silence surrounding China’s hidden human rights crisis.

Ye Haiyan, who goes by the online alias Hooligan Sparrow, is known for raising hell to defend sex workers from exploitation and violence, as well as for her pioneering outreach work on HIV/AIDS. She has been effectively denied permission to attend the AIDS Conference in Melbourne. Evidently the Chinese government has “blacklisted” her from traveling abroad, continuing a growing pattern of suppressing dissidents.

Ye’s planned presentation at the conference focused on the theme of “sex workers as human rights defenders.” Her work takes a harm-reduction approach, emphasizing the public health imperative of engaging sex workers in fighting HIV/AIDS, and the structural oppression fueling the spread of the epidemic globally.

Although sex work has thrived in China since dynastic times, its modern incarnation has become a flashpoint for prickly political and cultural tensions. From stereotypical seedy brothels to the highest circles of Chinese officialdom, there is burgeoning market for sexual services wherever there are people willing to pay. But as in the West, sex workers are systematically disenfranchised as citizens and economic actors. Ye shed a harsh light on these workers’ struggles in 2012 by blogging about her experience living as a sex-worker-for-a-day in the southern city of Wuhan, documenting the hardships and abuse faced by both the workers and the poor farmers and migrant laborers they served.

On her blog (quoted in The Daily Beast), she recalled watching a colleague get swept away by authorities: “I felt useless…. I watched my sisters being plundered by the police and there was nothing I could do to help them.”

According to a 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation on China’s sex workers, sex workers told researchers of “arbitrary fines, of [having their] possession of condoms used as evidence against them, of being detained following sex with undercover police officers, and of having almost no hope of winning remedies for rights violations by clients, bosses, or state agents [a well as] high risks of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.”

Some women interviewed by HRW from 2009 to 2011 described torture as an occupational hazard. A sex worker from Hebei recounted the interrogation routine: “They look for evidence. If you don’t admit, they’ll beat you. But if you can bear the beating, usually they’ll detain you for 24 hours and then let you go. But if you admit to prostitution when they beat you, [you might] be sent to Re-education [labor camp] for six months.”

While sex workers are socially marginalized, the government hypes anti-prostitution crackdowns as part of its crusade against corruption, known as “sweeping away the yellow.” Typically, according to HRW, prostitutes are portrayed as symbols of an “ugly social phenomenon” that threatens “socialist spiritual civilization.”

Ye challenged the government’s dehumanizing rhetoric in 2010, when authorities staged massive raids on brothels and exposed women to public shaming. Ye and her group, Chinese Women’s Rights Workshop, demanded not only protections for sex workers’ rights but full legalization of the industry. Global Voices quoted Ye’s criticism on social media:

Previously, I had no intention of making demands for legalization, I had only hoped that under the current state of things, the rights and interests of our sisters would receive greater protection.…

But the crackdowns this year have been insane and leave me feeling hopeless. Every day when you look at the news, you see sex being criminalized everywhere across the country; when they see the cameras, sisters will hang their heads our cover their faces as they get paraded around, exposed and publicly humiliated. So, I decided I could no longer hesitate or be wimpy about this.…

Yes, I’m pro-legalization, and this fight is against the persecution of sex!

Ye had observed firsthand how aggressive policing had made local sex workers apprehensive about using the condoms her group distributed, for fear they could be used as “evidence.” She advocated legalizing prostitution into an open, regulated market system (perhaps appealing to the government’s development agenda of controlled free-market growth).

And she urged the public to recognize the anti-democratic roots of the stigma surrounding the sex industry:

Chinese people are too closed-off in their lives, too cut off from information. Many don’t even know what it means to be alive, never mind embrace their own rights and interests or respect the rights of others.…

Regardless of whether or not you support them, sex workers still have the right to make their voices heard and to express their own demands.

The controversy that triggered the recent travel ban was more directly related to the government: she had openly condemned a Hainan school principal and government official accused of raping a group of girls. She was then physically assaulted and evicted, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

If it is politically motivated, the grounding of the Hooligan Sparrow before the AIDS conference reflects the government’s clumsy desperation to suppress civil society and maintain social power.

“Part of what [Ye] has really done extraordinarily well is to humanize the kinds of abuses sex workers are subject to, and…to humanize the face of sex work itself in China,” says HRW’s China Director Sophie Richardson. “And I think that makes some people, both officialdom and society deeply uncomfortable, because it remains such a taboo subject.”

Richardson adds that the government’s treatment of sex workers is also a test of its willingness to confront the reality of China’s HIV/AIDS crisis. “These are people who are among the best allies in that fight,” she says, “except that they’re marginalized, and abused and kept out of the discussion.”

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Ye took to Twitter on Saturday to express her frustration at being unable to travel and to present some themes of the lecture she would have given at the conference. she urged the activist community to focus on sex workers’ rights beyond just issues of HIV/AIDS transmission, and to place their struggles in the context of “overall human rights development.”

“I hope women’s organizations, as well as human rights defenders organizations to pay more attention to sex workers’ groups and include the voices of sex workers’ groups,” she stated. “Sex workers are women, yet not really accepted by the women’s groups; we defend the human rights of sex workers, but do not receive much direct support from human rights organizations. It would require a major, global change to achieve real equality for all.”

Even if she can’t leave the country, the absence of Ye’s voice at the AIDS conference shows exactly what’s missing from the global human rights discussion—and why it matters that she cannot be there to speak for herself.

 

Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on why the child migrants from Central America have a legitimate claim to asylum

Right-Wing Media: Forget Putin, Blame Obama

Obama

Barack Obama (Reuters/Kevin Lemarque) 

This morning, Fox & Friends showed a clip of Senator Diane Feinstein advising Vladimir Putin to “man up” and take responsibility for the attack on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 that killed all 298 people aboard. “[T]he nexus between Russia and the separatists has been established very clearly,” Feinstein said. “So the issue is, where is Putin?”

But Steve Doocy says she’s looking for the wrong guy. “She’s asking, Where’s Putin?” he said. “We’re asking, Where is the president?”

And that pretty much sums up the right-wing media spin on the Ukrainian disaster: forget Putin, Obama’s the guy we’ve gotta get under control. They’ve been bashing the president for attending fundraisers since the crash, for using the wrong words, for not being Ronald Reagan, for not being Samantha Power, and for somehow engineering the entire tragedy in order to distract us from Benghazi the IRS the crisis at the Mexican border.

According to Fox, the smoking gun in the shape of a mushroom cloud is that Obama stuck to his schedule instead of immediately returning to the White House after the plane was downed Thursday morning. That day, Obama made his first statement about the “terrible tragedy.” It lasted about forty seconds and came at the beginning of a prearranged speech about infrastructure he gave in Delaware, where he also did a photo op, before flying to New York for two fundraisers that night.

“We have 300 people shot out of the sky, likely by one of our biggest enemies. And the president’s raising money,” Sean Hannity said Thursday night. “What’s next? He’s going to put golf flags—since he plays golf 180 times—at half-mast? I mean, where is presidential action here?”

“Missing in action,” replied K.T. McFarland, a Fox national security analyst, who worked for the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

McFarland appeared on another Fox show earlier that day to say that when the Soviet military shot down a Korean passenger plane that had accidentally veered into Russian airspace in 1983, President Reagan handled it like an action hero. Reagan, she said, “was on vacation at his ranch in California. He immediately came back to Washington [and] canceled his vacation.”

She also lashed out at Obama for talking about the crash as “being a ‘tragedy.’ That’s compared to Reagan who talked about it being a ‘crime against humanity.’”

Reagan’s supposedly superior response to Obama’s in similar circumstances has been the conservatives’ number-one talking point. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough repeated it today, saying, “[Reagan] immediately canceled his vacation”—only to eat crow moments later when Mika Brzezinski insisted, “No, he didn’t, actually.”

Mika was right. Reagan did not rush home “immediately.” He returned to Washington only under pressure.

Rachel Maddow did a rundown last week of all the attacks on commercial airliners by military forces across the world (including our own, on an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, while Reagan was president). She included footage of then-NBC correspondent Chris Wallace, who reported that first day that Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes, “says the president has no plans to cut his vacation short, that he has the same ability to get information and issue orders at his ranch that he has at the White House.”

(Speakes went on to announce Reagan’s schedule for the day, saying, as recorded by The Washington Post, “The president, as usual, is planning a horseback ride this morning and will generally work around the ranch in the afternoon. The weather there is as it is here, sunny and warm.”)

Meanwhile, it’s been largely up to Wallace to correct his Fox colleagues’ rewrite of history. As he told the nonplussed crew at Fox & Friends last week:

He was in Santa Barbara at his ranch when that happened, and quite frankly he didn’t want to leave. And his advisers realized how terrible this looked, and eventually persuaded him he had to fly back to Washington and had to give this speech to the nation, but it did take him four days.

At Obama’s press conference on Friday (which took place one day, not four, after the Malaysian Airlines crash), he called it (using Reagan-strength language) “an outrage of unspeakable proportions.”

Blunted by history, the Fox talking point swerved after Obama’s presser. The idea now was to mention UN Ambassador Samantha Power as often as possible for sounding tougher on Russia than Obama. Brett Baier praised her for saying “Russia can and must end this war,” while Obama, Baier complained, merely said that “Russia and the Ukranians have the capacity to end the war.” In Foxland, small differences loom large.

Fred Thompson, playing the surrounded male guest on Fox’s Outnumbered, tried to make it clear that even girls have more balls than Barack. The country did get a presidential-level speech, he said, “but it came from Samantha Power,” adding, “Most people think [Hillary] is tougher than the president.”

The emasculation began at the start of the Ukrainian conflict, when right-thinking pundits fell hard for manly man Vladimir Putin, and Sarah Palin ridiculed Obama for wearing “mom jeans.” But their crush on the shirtless tiger-fondler has spiraled to Cliven Bundy levels of embarrassment as Putin is fingered for giving sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons to drunken separatists who shoot down civilian planes and then deny international crash experts access to the crime scene.

And so this morning, after Obama gave a short statement on Ukraine, Brit Hume griped that Obama used “weak and gentle” language, and Fox commentators continued to mention Power as the apple of their eye.

Of course, according to the right, whatever the crisis, Obama is always using it to distract from something that would otherwise sink his presidency.

“I don’t want appear to be callous here, folks,” Rush Limbaugh said Thursday, “but you talk about an opportunity to abandon the Obama news at the border? And, no, I’m not suggesting anything other than how the media operates. Anyway, it’s eerie. It is really eerie.”

On his radio show last week, Michael Savage segued from skewering the “illiterate peasants” that Obama is letting “invade” our country to saying, Isn’t it convenient that just as the border crisis is heating up, this plane is shot down?

But it was Fox News contributor and former congressman Allen West who got to the Grand Guignol, writing on his website: “The blood on Vladimir Putin’s hands was poured by Barack Obama who is indirectly responsible, accountable accountable [sic] and no different than Neville Chamberlain’s weakness in the face of the 20th Century maniacal dictator Adolf Hitler.”

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“So much for no drama Obama,” he concludes. “He is purposefully creating drama globally.”

As Media Matters dryly notes, “West did not expand on” how “he thinks Obama is ‘purposely creating’ ‘drama’ like the Malaysia crash.”

Sometimes the right-wing crazies over here sound like right-wing crazies everywhere. Top pro-Russia rebel commander Igor Girkin, for example, says the Malaysian plane flew into eastern Ukraine full of dead passengers, whose corpses were merely strewn across the countryside by the missile. So whose fault was that?

It won’t take them long to find it was Obama’s. Especially if they watch Fox.

 

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on ‘False Balance’ in the Media

Blinded Me with Balance: How the US Media Get Science Coverage Wrong (& How They Can Get It Right)

Fox on Climate Change

Fox New coverage of the climate change debate. (screen grab)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My new Nation column is called “ Don’t Know Much About History .” The subhed is: “The architects of our foreign-policy disasters would prefer we simply forget the past.” Guess what it’s about…

Here are the Alter-reviews:

1) The Alvin Brothers

2) CSN and CSNYY

3) Loudon Wainwright and David Bromberg

4) “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Nutty Professor”

5) New Jewish history and biography from Indiana University Press

1) Being a serious fan of the Blasters, I went to see the Alvin Brothers, Phil and Dave, promote their first studio album in thirty years, "Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy." The brothers have obviously not always gotten along so great, but two years ago when Phil was touring in Spain, he went to a local hospital for an infection from an abscessed tooth. Dave was informed that he was dead, and then informed that irreversible brain damage had caused his throat to swell virtually closed, his heart stopped and his vital signs flat-lined.

Anyway, Phil is somehow fine now—he loves his Spanish doctor--and the experience inspired both men to suck it up and start recording and touring together again. At the City Winery show, Dave did most of the talking, but was (to me, anyway) surprisingly deferential to Phil. Repeatedly he referred to the Blasters as Phil’s band, in which he briefly played and sang, (even though he wrote almost all their great material). True, Phil has a great voice—his version of “Please, Please, Please” delivered on its nearly impossible promise, but Dave is the genius. Highlights of the show included “Border Radio” and Leiber and Stoller’s “One Bad Stud” and of course, the instant classic “What’s Up With Your Brother,” but not, I say disappointedly, “American Music.” They were backed up by one of Dave’s bands. I’ve not gotten the cd yet but it can’t be anything but totally excellent. And if you want to hear more of their story, check out the interview they did with Terry Gross and listen to the new cd, upon which Phil sounds really terrific, though when you load it into iTunes, it comes up as just “Dave Alvin.”

2) Rhino’s CSNY 74 box set is one of the two big historical items of summer. (The other one is the complete 1971 Allman Brothers Fillmore shows.) I’m not saying that any cd package could be worth this wait—forty years is an awfully long time—but it is beautifully packaged and incredibly rich, including in newish material that has even bypassed most of the best-circulated bootlets. The audio is a pristine sounding 40 song set, divided between acoustic and electric sets and the video has 8 performances on it. I got the bluray audio, which sounds incredible, especially given the circumstances of the recording. And the 188 page booklet is well-written as well and generous, in terms of data and and photos, well beyond the call of duty. Fourteen year old yours truly bought tickets to the 77,000 person Roosevelt Raceway show with the Beach Boys and Joni Mitchell that September but I could not find a ride and so I had to sell them. Perhaps that was ok, since it ended up being a 12-hour show and began 3 hours early. But on these recordings, the band is terrific despite the fact that they could hardly speak to one another and were constantly worried about getting ripped off. (It was perhaps the first outdoor stadium tour—at least they say it was.) The guitar work of Stephen and Neil especially is one of the under-rated pleasures of a decidedly over-written era. (I guess coke overconsumption does not interfere with great guitar work.) It’s really superior in every way to 4 Way Street—every way except for the fact that it took four damn decades to arrive.

In celebration of the set, but also because they like to, CSN (minus Y) played three nights at the Beacon recently. I caught the opening show, which was surprisingly titled toward new material. Much of it was first-rate, though I find it difficult to enjoy music the first time I hear it. Stills’ guitar was just as solid as ever, backed up by Shane Fontayne, who has calmed down quite a bit since he played with Bruce, thankfully. The harmonies were (just about) as nice and vibes actually better than ever. The music, of course, is timeless (even without Y). These guys are a really good argument for getting old—though not such a good one for being young and famous and rich. Oh and they’re good sports too. Check out this Jimmy Fallon appearance if you’ve not already.

3) I saw two old reliables at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett David Bromberg and Loudon Wainwright, well, not together. Loudon’s show was whatever the WASPish word is for “mispucha” performance featuring Martha Wainwright and Lucy and Suzzy Roche. Loudon is just an amazing fellow for the way he has created this extended family and turned it into art and gotten everybody to go along, despite well, quite a few actions and undertakings that would have daunted—or perhaps even torn lesser families asunder. Everybody sounded great, especially Suzzy, upon whom I have a crush now going on about 36 years. Loudon looks distinguished with a white beard and his new stuff sounds like his old stuff, which is to say, smart and funny. The annual appearance in Amagansett gives the rest of us a chance to be glad we have our families and not his—albeit without the talent. You can hear him singing about his dog, here. The new album Haven't Got The Blues (Yet) will arrive in September

And since returning to performing live after 22 (or so) of retirement, David Bromberg and his band continue to offer a continuing master class in musical versitility, craftmanship, showmanship and good fun. It was a thrill to be so close to the stage at the Talkhouse and watch the man’s fingers move up and down those frets with equal parts imagination and self-discipline. Everyone in the band is terrific and if they’re not exactly tight, they make up for it in spades with chops and good humor. The material, as always, was first rate and Bromberg gets funnier as he gets older with that deadpan delivery and the now properly aged white blues voice. Go see these guys if you get the chance. Trust me. And the newish, but rather oldish sounding sort of ur-David Bromberg album is called “Only Slightly Mad,” if that’s as close as you can get. More here

4) On the merchandise front, there’s a brand new Criterion collection bluray/dvd package of “A Hard Day’s Night.” I shouldn’t really have to say more. It’s funny, sure, and creative and fun as hell. Andrew Sarris called it “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” In the documentary, Roger Ebert, who says he’s seen the movie 25 times, calls it “essentially orgasmic” today and compares it to “Casablanca” as well as Welles’ masterpiece. Well, OK. Most interestingly, from a historical viewpoint, I think the boys were already approaching, perhaps had already approached their melodic (through certainly not creative) peak with “All My Lovin’,” “Can’t ` Love,” “If I Fell, and especially, “I Should Have Known Better,”—an absolutely perfect song. Most people don’t think this happened until much later, but the proof is here. And now it’s got a gorgeous new 4K digital restoration, approved by director Richard Lester, with three audio options—a monaural soundtrack as well as newly created stereo and 5.1 surround mixes supervised by sound producer Giles Martin at Abbey Road Studios—presented in uncompressed monaural, uncompressed stereo, and DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray. I learned a lot from the “making of” documentary – “You Can’t Do That”: The Making of “A Hard Day’s Night,” a 1994 documentary by producer Walter Shenson including an outtake performance by the Beatles--which demonstrates, to an amazing degree, the casualness of the Beatles’ collective genius; one of the greatest of great things to happen in the twentieth century, or at least in my lifetime. [Did you know John and Paul wrote the title song pretty much to order and did so overnight because they needed a title song set to that title? I think they could have called it “You Can’t Do that” which was the song they cut from the band’s performances and was made available for the first time in this terrific documentary] Were I more a religious (and less grammatical) person, I would call them a miracle. (Funnily, Phil Collins compares it to the Old Testament.)

Plus that, you get all this:

– Audio commentary featuring cast and crew (dual-format only)

 In Their Own Voices, a new piece combining 1964 interviews with the Beatles with behind-the-scenes footage and photos

– Things They Said Today, a 2002 documentary about the film featuring Lester, music producer George Martin, screenwriter Alun Owen, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (dual-format only)

– Picturewise, a new piece about Lester’s early work, featuring a new audio interview with the director (dual-format only)

– The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), Lester’s Oscar-nominated short (dual-format only)

– Anatomy of a Style, a new piece on Lester’s methods (dual-format only)

– New interview with author Mark Lewisohn (dual-format only)

– PLUS: An essay by critic Howard Hampton and excerpts from a 1970 interview with Lester (dual-format only)

And being a longtime Francophile, I’m not ashamed to say that Jerry Lewis’s masterpiece, “The Nutty Professor” (1963), is one of my all-timers. The new Blu-ray/DVD combo, the box includes excerpts from the “Nutty Professor” script (written by Mr. Lewis and Bill Richmond); a hardcover selection of “Nutty Professor” storyboards; a facsimile of “Instruction Book for Being a Person,” the slim volume Mr. Lewis wrote, had bound and distributed to the movie’s cast and crew; a CD of 12 “phony phone calls” made by Mr. Lewis between 1959 and 1972; DVDs of “Cinderfella” (1960), a Lewis vehicle directed by Frank Tashlin but revised in the editing by its star; and the 1962 film “The Errand Boy”. So there’s that. I saw Jerry speak last year at the 92nd Street Y. It was one of the weirdest nights of my life. But the news was that he repeatedly denied that he was playing Dean in TNP, but like so much of what he said that night, it was nonsense.

5) I’ve been doing a lot of research in Jewish history of late and it leads me to want to write a short thank-you note to Indiana University Press, which, as scholars of the topic are well aware, punches way above its weight—or the weight of almost any other press in this category. I’ve had the occasion to spend some time with three recent publications of unique and significant value in recent weeks. They are The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan by Mel Scult, an emeritus professor at Brooklyn College, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence by my good friend and teacher, Rabbi Shai Held and In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine by Jeffrey Veidlinger, who teaches history and literature at the University of Michigan. Scult has already written a biography of Kaplan and so is able to combine his history with an inquiry into the meaning and (continueing relevance of his thought; though, I would argue that defines the beliefs of most American Jews, though precious few are aware of this. Rabbi Held’s book is strictly a theological examination of Heschel’s thought and a demanding one at that. It will no doubt reward the careful reading it requires. Heschel has become a kind of popular symbol of Jewish political liberalism in the sixties but not only is this misleading as matter of history, it does not begin to do justice to the religious and theological context out of which this action—“praying with his feet” as he called it—arose. Held does that and much more. I’ve not had time to delve into Veidlinger’s book yet, but its reviews have been superlative.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Blinded Me with Balance: How the U.S. Media Gets Science Coverage Wrong (& How It Can Get It Right)
by Reed Richardson

The press, as a rule, has never been an institution that spends a lot of time looking inward. Deeper-level questions about how it covers an issue or a topic rarely rise to the level where they’re allowed outweigh the exigencies of today’s deadlines and headlines. Journalism is the so-called first draft of history, after all, with heavy emphasis on the word “draft.” And such a granular, ephemeral emphasis on the here and now is ill-suited to noticing larger, long-gestating changes in a story or narrative and incorporating those changes into one’s reporting.

All this is to say that what the BBC has undertaken in the past few years is quite incredible. For a global news organization to publicly admit that its coverage of a critical news topic was sub-standard is remarkable in its own right. But then for it to devote exceedingly precious resources—both time and money—to better understand the subject matter and how it can be covered more accurately is, well, almost unheard of. (That the BBC is a publicly-funded news trust rather than a subsidiary of a large profit-driven multinational no doubt allows it to engage in this kind of editorial self-examination, but I digress.)

This past week, the BBC released the final installment of its multi-year review, the focus of which primarily centered on how well the network fulfilled its mission of impartially covering science. After years of inquiry, which included commissioning an independent analysis of its science coverage by academics and hosting numerous in-house science tutorials for 200 of its senior staff, the BBC came to grips with reality. In doing so, it belatedly joins what was already a widespread acceptance of climate change in the European media . Which is why the BBC’s common-sense conclusions should be required reading in newsrooms across the U.S.:

“[I]mpartiality in science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views, which may result in a ‘false balance’. More crucially it depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given. In this respect, editorial decisions should be guided by where the scientific consensus might be found on any given topic, if it can in fact be determined. […]

“This does not mean that critical opinion should be excluded. Nor does it mean that scientific research shouldn’t be properly scrutinised. The BBC has a duty to reflect the weight of scientific agreement but it should also reflect the existence of critical views appropriately. Audiences should be able to understand from the context and clarity of the BBC’s output what weight to give to critical voices.”

These conclusions, the BBC goes on to note, are of particular importance when covering climate change and evolution, where there exists overwhelming scientific agreement on the basic facts. Going forward, BBC says that it will take care to give “due weight” to scientific theories without being bound to offer an equal counterpoint where none is merited. Imagine that, a media organization thinking first and foremost about the mission of informing readers rather than maintaining a contrived veneer of political neutrality.

It’s just the kind of fresh thinking the media could use here in the U.S. Here, sadly, TV news networks are still actively trolling for climate deniers to put on the air. As Media Matters documented two weeks ago, a clumsy editor at CNBC accidentally outed that network’s attempts at providing a friendly platform for climate-change-is-a-hoax shtick . This disregard for the facts isn’t much of a surprise, however, as CNBC routinely gives climate change deniers a majority of airtime on the issue.

Over at Fox News—to no one’s surprise—newsroom leadership has long taken a dim view of the scientific consensus on climate change and insists on giving “critics” equal—if not more—coverage. Or, as then Washington bureau chief Bill Sammon put it in afrantic 2010 email memo to his staff:

“…we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.” [emphasis in original]

There is a kind of audacious, Orwellian purity to Sammon’s warning: “it is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as fact.” But it fits perfectly with a cable network whose ultimate purpose isn’t to present facts to its viewers so much as it is to package an alternate reality for them. To assert there is a climate change “debate,” as Sammon put it, isn’t just a feature of Fox News, though. It’s standard practice among a wide swath of the establishment media that seeks intellectual shelter in equivocating, on-the-other-hand coverage. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that Fox News’ climate change coverage was misleading 72% of the time, but also that CNN’s was too nearly one-third of the time. MSNBC’s coverage, by contrast, was rated as accurate by the UCS nearly all of the time. And lest you think it’s just TV news doing this, think again. Major newspapers and wire services do it too.

Scientists have certainly noticed the media’s propensity for false balance. In anaggregating survey of nearly 400 climate scientists , published in 2010 by German scientists Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch, they said journalists reach out to a scientist claiming climate change is a hoax almost as often as they contact a scientist claiming climate change is real and an impending disaster. (On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being very likely contacted, the “hoax” source averaged a 4.9, while the median score for the “real, disaster” source was 5.6. See Q’s: 58 & 59.) This, despite the fact that the same survey found zero climate scientists said climate change was “not at all” happening and less than two percent said climate change was “not at all” the result of man-made causes (Q’s: 20 & 21).

This particular survey by Bray and von Storch offers a window into the polarized state of scientific debate in the media. That’s because it has become something of a touchstone for climate deniers, who have tried to conflate its findings of specific disagreements in the scientific community on the mechanisms and impacts of man-made climate change with the idea that no consensus exists on the broader question of anthropogenic climate change. Two major surveys of climate scientists put the consensus figure at97% , which is the number NASA endorses as well. The latest UN IPCC report from last fall varies a tiny bit from this, using a 95% confidence number.

Nevertheless, a pair of ‘consensus truthers’ was given ample room on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page recently to try to undermine the idea of climate change by specifically citing the Bray and von Storch survey as proof that the 97% consensus is a “myth.” Not surprisingly, the op-ed’s co-authors—one of whom is president of the oil and gas-industry funded Heartland Institute—failed to mention the most salient findings I cited above. And notably, two weeks after that column was published, Dennis Bray himself published a rebuttal post on the Klimazwiebel blog. In it, he called out theJournal op-ed’s claims about his survey as “inaccurate if not outright false” and lamented that his work had been co-opted for partisan purposes and circulated around the world as proving something that it doesn’t.

As the old Mark Twain adage goes, though, Bray’s truth on his blog will never catch up to the jet-fueled distortions of climate deniers in the mainstream media. Even if they somehow did, numerous studies have found that attempts at debunking myths are, in fact, counterproductive; they produce a ‘backfire effect’ that only serves to strengthen belief in the myth. For evidence of how stubbornly embedded phony scientific beliefs can become, one need only look to the climate skeptics’ conference being held at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas this week. Sponsored by—looky here—the Heartland Institute, the conference’s keynote speaker on Tuesday was Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who, in his speech, proceeded to run through a whole host of easily disproven conspiracies about global warming, acid rain, and water fluoridation. Rohrabacher, I might point out, sits on the House Science Committee.

Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan has noted that once a scientific issue gets interwoven with politics, the former often gets subsumed by the latter. Or, as he explained at The Upshot after the Hobby Lobby case: “identity often trumps the facts.” The media’s role in at the intersection of science and policy has been a frequent point of inquiry for Nyhan, and his 2010 study of the myths propagated during the Clinton and Obama health care reform debates offers up very similar conclusions to the BBC survey:

“[U]ntil the media stops giving so much attention to misinformers, elites on both sides will often succeed in creating misperceptions, especially among sympathetic partisans. And once such beliefs take hold, few good options exist to counter them—correcting misperceptions is simply too difficult.”

Some American news sites are catching on to this. The Los Angeles Times, for example, took a small, but important step last fall when it declared it would no longer run climate change denial letters to the editor . Paul Thornton, the Times’ letters editor, explained his decision as a matter of journalistic integrity: “I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page…saying "there's no sign humans have caused climate change" is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

Similarly, the PhD chemist Nathan Allen, who is the moderator of Reddit’s popular/r/science discussion board chose to ban climate change denying commenters recently. Although controversial, removing what, in the end, amounted to just a handful of people who had been mostly lobbing insults made a huge difference. Where before discussions were routinely hijacked by paranoid, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, now there is serious, substantive debate about the facts of climate change and other scientific topics. The experience left Allen convinced more can be done and, in a column for Grist last December, he issued a challenge to the press: “[I]f a half-dozen volunteers can keep a page with more than 4 million users from being a microphone for the antiscientific, is it too much to ask for newspapers to police their own editorial pages as proficiently?”

The simple answer should be “no.” After all, nonpartisan media watchdogs cheered theTimes decision as a long overdue re-assertion of the primacy of facts as the basis for all journalism, whether it’s in the news or opinion pages. Nevertheless, a misguided sense of objectivity still colors much of the American media’s news judgment, which is likely who no other major newspaper has followed suit. And climate skeptics, aided by the usual suspects in the media, have been quick to exploit the media’s timidity and claim their dissenting views are being unfairly suppressed.

The truth, of course, is exactly the opposite. And that’s the problem. By essentially leveling the ground for climate deniers, the press neutralizes the scientific consensus by converting the discussion into one of politics and beliefs. This is more comfortable, familiar terrain for the press because it allows it to avoid value judgments about the validity of each side’s arguments. But when every fact can be grounds for a debate, then there really are no facts anymore. In such an environment, it’s little surprise then, that compromise is impossible and nothing much gets done in Washington anymore either.

Choosing to do nothing about climate change is, of course, still a choice, just as choosing not to acknowledge the scientific consensus about climate change is one as well. In the face of such a fundamental global threat, however, both choices are increasingly untenable. The BBC was wise to recognize how its flawed editorial decisions were playing into this calculus and that it could do better by its global audience. As watchdog of the biggest greenhouse gas-producing nation in our planet’s history, the American media bears an even larger burden in how it covers climate change. But if it continues to forsake its responsibility to the truth, the notion that ours is a free press equal to (or better than) the rest of the world’s media will just be yet another tragic case of false balance.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

How Should Obama Deal With a World Engulfed in War?

Obama

President Obama discusses the situation in Iraq June 19, 2014. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

It’s hard to remember a time—we’re talking even way back in the bad old days of the Cold War—when things were such a mess. It’s hard even to count the number of wars underway right at the moment, but let’s list at least some of them: there’s the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the civil strife in eastern Ukraine, the twin civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the ongoing Afghanistan war, Pakistan’s assault on Taliban strongholds, virtual civil war in Libya, general conflicts across Africa (Nigeria, Mali, the Sudans, Somalia and of course in the eastern Congo/Uganda region), drone strikes and civil war in Yemen. To that list we might add tensions pitting China against Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines and, of course, the high-stakes negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1 world powers. And then there’s the immigration crisis at the border. (You might be able to think of some I’ve neglected to mention.)

At the beginning of July, the surprise offensive by the Al Qaeda–like Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the headlines. Though it hasn’t gone away, it’s essentially been eclipsed by the brutal Israeli offensive in Gaza and by the crisis in Ukraine, sparked by Vladimir Putin’s irredentist claim to defend Russians everywhere and culminating in the shootdown of Flight MH17. In normal times, any one of these crises, each one of which brings unbearable losses of human life and ill forebodings of things to come, would grab the attention of the entire world. But this is not normal times. Why is this all happening, and why now?

It’s tempting to say that it’s the result of retrenchment on the part of the United States and of President Obama’s disinclination to get involved in conflict overseas—tempting, but wrong. That hasn’t stopped Republicans, and hawks and neoconservatives in the United States, from blaming Obama for everything: if only he’d kept troops in Iraq, if only he’d bombed Syria, if only he’d rush military aid and US advisers to Ukraine, if only he’d bomb ISIS in Iraq, if only he’d throw America’s full support to the Syrian rebels, if only he’d been a stronger ally of Israel’s. And so on.

As readers of this blog are know well, for the past several years I’ve analyzed every one of these conflicts as they’ve built to explosive levels. And while Obama might have handled things differently in every case, it’s utterly wrong to blame the president’s alleged over-caution and aloofness for the wave of crises sweeping the world. Fact is, what we’re seeing around the world might be the new normal. The emergence of a multipolar world, the irreversible decline of America’s ability to throw around its political, economic and military might, the rise of regional powers which insist on carving out spheres of influence, and the collapse of the old, authoritarian order in the Middle East are all factors—as is the growing competition for resources, especially water, food and energy, as climate change causes major shifts in the balance of power. There’s no magic bullet for any of these—especially solutions that actually require bullets.

So Obama’s caution is laudable, but that’s not to say that there aren’t things that Obama might do. He could push Israel to halt its murderous assault and then announce an American peace plan for the Israel-Palestine conflict—something he’d hinted he might do, but didn’t. He could wind down America’s support for the rebels in Syria, which would weaken ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. He could take advantage of the MH17 tragedy to unify the rest of the world around a no-nonsense approach to Russia’s out-of-control inflammation of Ukraine, and get diplomacy back on track. And so on. But Obama’s critics are wrong when they insist that a more “robust” (and I hate that word), stronger and more aggressive US military and political stand could somehow calm the waters. There’s no option that involves US forces in Ukraine, no option that sends US troops into Libya or back into Iraq, no new escalation of the war in Afghanistan, no Cold War–style “containment” of Russia and China and certainly no option to use US military force against Iran’s nuclear installations.

Equally, while it’s easy to look back and blame George W. Bush, the eruption of a world in crisis isn’t simply “Bush’s fault.” Yes, the Ukraine crisis would be less intense if President Bush (and President Clinton) hadn’t expanded NATO toward Russia’s borders. Yes, Iraq would be suffering far less but for Bush’s illegal 2003 war. Yes, radical Islamists would be less powerful if Bush hadn’t proclaimed a “Global War on Terrorism” that was perceived as an American assault on the entire Muslim world. But the rise of China, the reassertion of Russia’s claim to parts of the old USSR, the chaos that followed the Arab Spring, the conflicts in Africa—well, none of those have easy solutions. And there are deeper, underlying causes at work.

Although President Obama may be right in his instinct to focus on rebuilding America’s infrastructure at home, creating jobs and dealing with healthcare, he’s going to have to spend a lot of time at the United Nations—and perhaps hire a passel of new, Richard Holbrooke–style special envoys, too—because none of these crises are going away, and every one of them needs an army of diplomats.

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That said, the crisis in Gaza ought once and for all to convince the United States that Israel is far too costly an ally, and one that is far too arrogant. The Israeli doctrine that one or two dead or kidnapped soldier on the border with Lebanon justifies killing a thousand Lebanese and bombing Beirut, or that a fusillade of mostly harmless rockets landing in Israel’s southern desert means that Israel has to (for the third time in a decade) kill hundreds in Gaza is breathtaking in its sheer arrogance. Given America’s vast aid to Israel—not to mention its being nearly the sole source of Israel’s political support—the United States can either rein in Israel or exact costly penalties. But perhaps it’s too much to believe that the Obama administration is finally getting the message, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s hot-mike comment sarcastically referring to Israel’s “pinpoint” attacks that are anything but pinpointed.

If Obama does anything, in regard to foreign policy, in the next two and half years, he’ll need an all-out effort to develop a consensus at home about how to deal with a world in crisis, and how to put in place a serious diplomatic strategy that can take all of this on. Looking at each crisis on its own, as a fire to be extinguished, won’t work. That will take a lot of serious thinking from a lot of serious people, but he’d better start now.

 

Read Next: Vladimir Putin should take responsibility for the MH17 shootdown.