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21 posts from December 2009

December 12, 2009

Tea Party protesters demand Rep. Perriello move his office for their picketing convenience

Tea Party protesters are demanding that liberal Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va) move his office for their picketing convenience.

In fairness to the vanguard of America's second revolution, there isn't enough parking and taking the bus would be socialism.

Jason Linkins has the story, via Think Progress.

December 10, 2009

O, my gawd: Harriet "SkepDoc" Hall lands Oprah magazine column


Meet the SkepDoc, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Oprah Winfrey is notorious for using her media pulpit to promote all manner of quacks and cranks. Imagine my surprise and delight to learn that my friend and Skeptic's Toolbox Colleague Harriet Hall (aka SkepDoc) has been invited to contribute a regular column to O, The Oprah Magazine. It's as if Soldier of Fortune hired a resident Quaker.

Congratulations to O for a good get and congratulations to Harriet for breaking the pop culture barrier, the skeptical equivalent of the glass ceiling.

Jazz police are looking through my folders

A Spanish jazz fan called the cops when he decided that a performance by jazz saxophonist Larry Ochs wasn't really jazz:

Police decided to investigate after an angry jazz buff complained that the Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core group was on the wrong side of a line dividing jazz from contemporary music.

The jazz purist claimed his doctor had warned it was "psychologically inadvisable" for him to listen to anything that could be mistaken for mere contemporary music.

According to a report in El País newspaper yesterday, the khaki-clad police officers listened to the saxophone-playing and drumming coming from the festival stage before agreeing that the purist might, indeed, have a case.

His complaint against the organisers, who refused to return his money, was duly registered and will be passed on to a judge. [Guardian]

December 09, 2009

Scout's honor: Founder of Boy Scouts executed a POW

First Tiger Woods, and now this. Role models are dropping like flies.

Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, may have illegally executed a prisoner of war--according to documents sold at auction this week. The papers indicate that Lord Powell, then colonel in the British Army, ordered the execution of a captured African chief during the Second Matabele War in 1896. The chief had been promised that his life would be spared if he surrendered. The record states that Powell knew this, but had the chief shot anyway. In his own defense, Powell claimed he had the prisoner killed in order to "save lives." An official inquiry cleared him of wrongdoing, mostly because his old school chums swore up and down that he was a good guy.

December 08, 2009

The Skeptical Gawker: "Cleanses", "toning shoes", and cookie diets

Thank you, Hamilton Nolan of Gawker for shattering illusions with science and reason:

You know what else is bullshit, besides juice cleanses? The idea that wearing some ugly Reeboks with a curvy sole will give you an Ass of Steel. Bullshit. Also, cookie diets? Bullshit.

The cleansing craze is a socially acceptable variant of bulimia.* Crash diets are no longer socially acceptable. These days, even the women's magazines that promote crash diets insist they are offering healthy, sustainable 1200 calorie meal plans.

There is so much evidence that starvation diets are ineffective and dangerous that even quacks now claim to reject them. But evidently, people still want permission to subsist on 800 calories a day and use lot of laxatives. Marketers have responded to the demand. 

Continue reading "The Skeptical Gawker: "Cleanses", "toning shoes", and cookie diets" »

December 06, 2009

Not all feminists love escalation in Afghanistan

Dana Goldstein has a piece called "Why Feminists Love the Surge" in the Daily Beast. Her prime example is Eleanor Smeal, founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which has advocating for women and girls in Afghanistan since 1996. Smeal believes that long-term U.S. military occupation is the only way to save women and girls from the horrors of another Taliban-style regime.

Yet, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the nation's oldest and most illustrious feminist group, opposes the U.S. occupation. RAWA argues that the real enemy of women's rights in Afghanistan is religious fundamentalism, not the Taliban, per se.

RAWA sees the U.S. occupation entrenching a regime stuffed to the gills with fundamentalists, reactionaries, misogynists, criminals, and warlords. As the group says on its website

The US "War on terrorism" removed the Taliban regime in October 2001, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism which is the main cause of all our miseries. In fact, by reinstalling the warlords in power in Afghanistan, the US administration is replacing one fundamentalist regime with another. The US government and Mr. Karzai mostly rely on Northern Alliance criminal leaders who are as brutal and misogynist as the Taliban. RAWA believes that freedom and democracy can’t be donated; it is the duty of the people of a country to fight and achieve these values. Under the US-supported government, the sworn enemies of human rights, democracy and secularism have gripped their claws over our country and attempt to restore their religious fascism on our people.

At feministe, Frau Sally Benz links to an interview with a RAWA spokeswoman known only by the pseudonym "Zoya." Zoya's on a speaking tour, but her face is blurred out for her own safety. Even in occupied Afghanistan, it's dangerous for women to speak out.

Westerners usually frame the debate over U.S./NATO policy in Afghanistan is usually framed as a choice between handing the country back to the Taliban or propping up the Karzai regime. The latter is assumed to be a dramatically better option for women's rights. 

Karzai pays lip service to women's rights, but jettisons them whenever he needs to make a compromise to stay in power. It should be noted, for example, that the Karzai government was responsible for the infamous Shia Family Law which legalized marital rape within Shia marriages.

Last month, Malalai Joya, a former member of the Afghan parliament, told Michelle Goldberg of the Daily Beast that the situation for Afghan women is every bit as bad under Karzai as it was under the Taliban. Joya is also concerned that civilian casualties are fueling popular support for the Taliban.

RAWA and its grassroots allies think that pro-democracy forces could transform the country on their own without U.S. military occupation. That's a point of view we seldom hear in U.S. media.

I don't know how realistic it is to think that pro-democracy forces could prevail in a two-front struggle against Karzai's warlords and the Taliban, but the question hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as the issue of whether the U.S. could force reform at gunpoint. Maybe RAWA and its allies would have a better shot at power if the occupation wasn't shoveling billions of dollars to the most reactionary elements in society.

December 05, 2009

Canadian climate research unit burglarized

Via Think Progress:

Burglars and hackers have attacked the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, apparently in an attempt to further the “Climategate” intimidation of global warming researchers. The Climategate smear campaign rests on the release of thousands of emails illegally hacked last month from the British Climatic Research Unit (CRU). The National Post reports that the Centre for Climate Modelling, a government institution, is also the victim of repeated criminal attacks: Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria scientist and key contributor to the Nobel prize-winning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says there have been a number of attempted breaches in recent months, including two successful break-ins at his campus office in which a dead computer was stolen and papers were rummaged through.

You wonder why some of those hacked CRU emails suggested something of a siege mentality on the part of their authors? Maybe because these scientists are literally under siege.

Sen. Max Baucus nominated girlfriend for U.S. Attorney post

Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus is defending his decision to recommend his girlfriend and former state office director Melodee Hanes for a job as a U.S. Attorney for Montana.

Baucus's main "defense" appears to be that he and Hanes were separated from their respective spouses when they started dating. That's touching, but it's hardly the point. The scandal here is an apparent conflict of interest, not infidelity.

It should be noted, however, that Hanes withdrew her application for the AUSA U.S. Attorney job when she decided to move in with Baucus. So, ultimately, she didn't end up benefiting unjustly from her connection to the senator.

However, as part of the selection process, Baucus submitted 6 names to an independent evaluator who picked the top 3 candidates to be interviewed by Baucus and Montana's other senator. Which means that some aspiring AUSA lost the opportunity to advance to the final round because Hanes was taking up a spot. Media reports don't say whether the independent evaluator knew that Hanes was Baucus's girlfriend.

The really objectionable part of this story is that Baucus was responsible for interviewing his girlfriend and making recommendations. If Hanes wanted to apply for the job, Baucus should have recused himself.

Hanes, a former county prosecutor, now works on juvenile justice issues at the Justice Department. She swears she got that job on her own with no help from Baucus. We'll see if those claim withstands scrutiny in the days ahead.

Props to Andrew Ramonas of Main Justice for breaking the story.

December 04, 2009

Afghanistan reality check

Sobering thoughts from Ahmed Rashid on the New York Review of Books blog:

US hopes rest on the Afghan National Army (ANA), which today numbers some 90,000 soldiers. Yet after eight years of US intervention in Afghanistan, not a single brigade is self sufficient or combat-ready. The only area the Afghan army has under its control is Kabul city, where thousands of Western troops are available for backup. Unlike in Iraq, where a literate, professional standing army existed under Saddam Hussein, in Afghanistan what remained of the military had largely disbanded or deserted by the time of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Since then there has only been warlordism.

Seventy percent of today’s ANA recruits are illiterate and do not have the skills to carry out even the simplest orders. The army has neither a fully trained officer class nor any logistical support or medical supply lines that can function without American support. The 93,000 police recruits are in even worse shape. Any expectation that the Karzai government will improve its performance—in the aftermath of a fraudulent election and amid continual reports of corruption and incompetence—is just hope. [NYRblog]

December 02, 2009

Tomasky, Moore, and Afghanistan

Micahel Tomasky accuses Michael Moore of being a fatuous blowhard for criticizing the war in Afghanistan as a doomed imperial adventure. Now, Moore can be a fatuous blowhard, but Tomasky doesn't make the charge stick this time. 

In his open letter to President Obama, Moore warns that Afghanistan has been nicknamed "the graveyard of empires."

Tomasky sneers:

I really don't see what America's mission in Afghanistan has to do with what the British did or what the Soviets did. People love lazy historical parallels, and have a tendency to have over-learned the famous Santayana maxim and believe that invoking it makes them sound smart. But every historical situation is different. Why wouldn't someone with Moore's lefty politics be righteous in the conviction that we owe it to the Afghan people to try to help them establish a proper nation-state for the first time in their history?

Moore doesn't spell out the historical analogy, but the common threads seem obvious to me: The Afghan people have historically been implacably opposed to foreign occupation of any kind and they've been very good at resisting it. It's not just a matter of tradition or national pride, Afghanistan is full of seasoned guerrilla fighters who cut their teeth opposing the Soviets. They're pros. Also, time is on their side. We can leave any time, but they live there. They don't have to drive us out, they can just harass us until we get bored and leave.

Furthermore, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a lot of people in the Muslim world saw it as struggle of Christendom vs. Islam vs. occupying infidels. As a result, Afghanistan became a destination for would-be jihadists from all over the world. That's how Osama bin Laden got his start. If our goal is ultimately to marginalize Islamic extremists, we should be wary about escalating the kind of fight that galvanized them in the first place.

Moore also touches on longstanding cultural barriers to imperialist Pygmalion projects in Afghanistan. Maybe Moore and I are wrong about how much Afghans want to become a modern industrial nation state, but it seems like there are any number of powerful interests opposed and not a lot of countervailing enthusiasm for the project.

Historical analogies are always inexact. Maybe there are reasons to be more optimistic about the current occupation. But at this point, we're not just speculating about how things might turn out. We've been occupying Afghanistan for the better part of a decade and it doesn't seem to be working.

Tomasky accuses Moore of letting his "knee jerk" anti-imperialism overshadow his liberal values.

"Why wouldn't someone with Moore's lefty politics be righteous in the conviction that we owe it to the Afghan people to try to help them establish a proper nation-state for the first time in their history?" Tomasky wants to know.

I am so sick of hearing this straw man argument from liberals. They point to a desirable goal and accuse us of rejecting it, even though nobody actually objects to the war because they hate women's liberation and clean drinking water. The point of contention is not whether a stable and democratic Afghanistan would be desirable, but whether military occupation is a good means to that end. 

It's like saying, "You'd think a lefty would want to put out this fire." Well, yes, we lefties like firefighting, but the question is whether it's a good idea to try to put out this blaze with gasoline.