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Archive for December 2009

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Edge of Climate Change

Five Climate Lobbyists for Every Member of Congress—Representing Soup to Nuts

December 28th 2009

Environment Topics - Smokestacks

The next round of the battle over climate change policy on Capitol Hill will involve more than the usual suspects. Way more. Watch soup makers face off against steel companies. Witness the folks who pump gas from the ground fight back against those who dig up rock. And watch the venture capitalists who have money riding on new technology try to gain advantage in a game that so far has been deftly controlled by the old machine.

In short, even though President Obama pledged to the world at Copenhagen that the United States is committed to action on global warming, the domestic politics are only growing "curiouser and curiouser," as Alice might say from Wonderland. An analysis of the latest federal records by The Center for Public Integrity shows that the overall number of businesses and groups lobbying on climate legislation has essentially held steady at about 1,160, thanks in part to a variety of interests that have left the fray. But a close look at the 140 or so interests that jumped into the debate for the first time in the third quarter shows a marked trend: Companies and organizations which feel they've been overlooked are fighting for a place at the table. Read more ..

The Legal Edge

Jewish Groups Differ on Legal Immunity for Foreign Leaders

December 28th 2009

Jewish Topics - Nathan Lewin, Attorney
Attorney Nathan Lewin

Stephen Greenwald is well aware that when defending the rule of law, "you're not always on the side of the angels."

The adage comes to mind as Greenwald, president of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, fights to overturn a federal court ruling concerning a former Somali prime minister who stands accused of war crimes.

The litigation that led to the ruling was filed against former Somali Prime Minister Muhamed Ali Samantar. It argues that diplomatic immunity should be waived so that Samantar can be tried for abetting a host of war crimes, among them torture and murder. Read more ..

Mexico on the Edge

Modern Day Slavery in Mexico and the United States

December 28th 2009

Latin American Topics - Mexico Prostitution Trafficking

On December 3, Mexico City police freed 107 human trafficking victims who were forced to manufacture shopping bags and clothespins under “slave-like” circumstances. Officials reported that the victims exhibited signs of physical and sexual abuse, and were also malnourished, as they had been given only chicken feet and rotten vegetables. Twenty-three individuals were arrested and charged with human trafficking after one of the workers escaped and informed the authorities about the dire situation. Despite that fact that Mexican states have enacted some forms of anti-trafficking legislation, there have been no criminal convictions of traffickers to date. In the coming months, it awaits to be seen if those captured on December 3rd will be convicted. While the discovery of this trafficking ring has made for lurid headlines, doubt regarding whether or not these criminals will be brought to justice illuminates the fact that Mexico still has a long road ahead in eradicating the destructive industry of human trafficking.

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is the fastest growing illegal industry in the world and, by 2010, it is predicted to surpass the illicit drug trade, which will make it the world’s largest criminal activity. The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, […] for the purpose of exploitation.” A common misconception is that an individual must cross international borders to be considered a victim of human trafficking; however, as evidenced by the United Nations’ definition, this is not always the case. Read more ..

Edge of Archaeology

Minoan-style paintings in Ancient Canaanite Palace Link to Aegean Civilizations

December 28th 2009

Archaeology Topics - Tel Kabri
Tel Kabri

Tel Kabri is the only site in Israel where wall paintings similar in style to those found in the Aegean 3,600 years ago have been found; researchers say this was a conscious decision made by the city rulers to lean toward Mediterranean culture.

The remains of a Minoan-style wall painting, recognizable by a blue background, the first of its kind to be found in Israel, was discovered in the course of the recent excavation season at Tel Kabri. This fresco joins others of Aegean style that have been uncovered during earlier seasons at the Canaanite palace in Kabri. "It was, without doubt, a conscious decision made by the city's rulers who wished to associate with Mediterranean culture and not adopt Syrian and Mesopotamian styles of art like other cities in Canaan did. The Canaanites were living in the Levant and wanted to feel European," explains Dr. Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa, who directed the excavations. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan: Hamas in Ascendance

December 28th 2009

Islamic Topics - Muslim Brotherhood Jordan

In early September, three senior leaders of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood (MB) resigned from the organization's executive bureau after it voted to dissolve the MB political department -- one of the few remaining components of the organization controlled by moderates. The resignations were a protest against not only the executive bureau's decision, but also the MB's increasingly close affiliation with Hamas. Today, the Jordanian MB is facing an unprecedented internal crisis, pitting the traditional moderate East Bank leadership -- Jordanians who are not originally Palestinian -- against the powerful pro-Hamas Palestinian-led element. Lately, these divisions have been aggravated by Hamas political bureau head Khaled Mashal's apparent efforts to exploit the shifting balance of power within the MB to further his own organization's agenda in Amman. Ironically, Jordanian authorities -- who have long prided themselves on managing the Islamist issue -- have done little to stem the tide.

Two Competing Schools of Thought

Jordan's MB has always been divided ideologically between hawks and doves, a division that historically has benefited and strengthened the MB. The doves -- mainly East Bankers -- served as both the movement's leaders and as a cushion that insulated the regime from the organization's more radical base. Until recently, Jordanians of Palestinian origin never filled leadership positions. On April 30, 2008, however, Hamam Said, a radical clergyman with Palestinian roots and sympathies, was elected supreme guide, the top position in the MB.

Hamam Said's ascendance has been controversial, creating a dynamic that places the kingdom's Islamists into direct confrontation with the state. Paradoxically, this development may itself lead to increased dependence on the doves to mitigate expected tension with the state in the coming months. Read more ..

Urban Transit

Bus Rapid Transit in Latin America--Successes But Miles to Go

December 28th 2009

Energy / Environment - Bogata Bus Line
Bogota Bus Rapid Transit

Over the past fifteen years, cities throughout Latin America have achieved a modest, yet significant revolution in urban design through the adoption and refinement of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems. Promising the benefits of developed world transit systems at developing world prices, BRT has quickly become a popular policy initiative among national and municipal level Latin American policymakers charged with reducing the crippling congestion, choking pollution, and alarming accident rates characteristic of the largely unregulated bus transit systems in most cities throughout the region. Pioneered in the mid-sized Brazilian city of Curitiba in the 1970s, Bus Rapid Transit increased bus speeds and improved road safety by placing high-capacity buses within committed bus lanes which channel buses to a series of fixed stations, similar to light-rail or metro systems. Inspired by the success of Curitiba’s system, cities such as Bogotá and Quito have more recently made BRT the linchpin of their transit network, to considerable acclaim from the riding public and international observers alike. Read more ..

Iran on the Edge

Islam vs. Iran's 'Islamic Republic'

December 28th 2009

Iran - Iran Election Protest

A new opportunity is now emerging for the "Green Movement" in Iran to demonstrate opposition to the Islamic Republic and the manipulated presidential election results earlier this year. Friday, December 18 marked the beginning of the months of Muharram and Safar in the Islamic lunar calendar. For the regime in Tehran, gaining control of the streets has become gradually more difficult since the Green Movement turned all officially sanctioned political ceremonies into opportunities to wage protests against the Islamic Republic. The coming two months, however, represent the first time that a religious opportunity has come up.

Mourning Means Revolting

In Shiite tradition, Hossein, the third imam -- meaning both political leader and spiritual guide -- led a noble but ultimately unsuccessful revolt against the unjust rule of the Muslim caliph Yazid. The tenth day of Muharram, or Ashura, marks the bloody end to this revolt in October 680 of the Common Era, when Hossein faced off against Yazid's army at Karbala. Once Hossein's forces had been defeated, he and some seventy of his disciples, along with all the male members of his family, were brutally killed. Since then, Hossein has occupied a special place for Shiites. He gained the title "Master of Martyrs," and in the course of Islamic history his image has been influenced by pre-Islamic mythology as well as Christian scripture. Remembrance of the passion of Hossein and his sacrifice, as well as the suffering of his family and disciples, has served as a locus for sustaining Shiite identity. The events of Ashura are viewed by Shiites as the defining moment when they split from the mainstream Sunni sect and the caliphate. By extension, Shiites have long connected mourning for Hossein, and his divine sacrifice, with the principles of truth and justice as opposed to unjust and cruel leadership. Read more ..

Destination Spain

The Ghosts of Europe's Past, Present, and Future in Spain's Pyrenees

December 28th 2009

Architecture - Estacion Canfranc

In the midst of the Pyrenees range of Spain lies a relic of history that continues to attract visitors to the scenic valley of Canfranc in Aragon. One of the most beautiful rail stations in the world, that served as a location for the filming of “Doctor Zhivago,’ lies mouldering in the a valley that for centuries served as a way station for pilgrims crossing the mountains from France as they made their way to the shrine of St. James the Apostle at the eponymous city of Santiago de Compostela. Situated in the province of Huesca, in what was once the Kingdom of Aragon, Canfranc (‘field of foreigners’) lies in the vertiginous valley of the Aragón river.

Few places in Europe are as evocative of the past, and the tangled international interests of Continental governments, their pomp and misplaced optimism. Inaugurated with pomp and circumstance on July 18, 1928 by King of Spain Alfonso XIII and Gaston Doumergue President of France, the station at Canfranc was at the time the largest train station in Europe, surpassing even St. Pancras station in London. No doubt the two heads of state believed then that national sovereignty, and the principle that good borders make good neighbours, would always be true and that their monument to those raisons d’etat would always stand to attest their memory.

Certainly, nothing was spared in engineering the railways that led to the station nor in the building itself which was to become an exemplar of Art Nouveau. Created by Spanish architect Fernando Ramírez de Dampierre, construction continued from 1921 to 1925. It was decided that the station would be built in Spain since the terrain in nearby France would have been impossible. The station measures some 750 feet long, with 75 doors on each side and more windows than days in a year.

Edge of Climate Change

Glacial Melting Dries Up Oceanic Food Chain

December 28th 2009

Environment Topics - Melting Glaciers

A study recently completed in the gulf coast of Alaska by federal and university researchers has found that as glacial ice disappears, the production and export of high- quality food from glacial watersheds to marine ecosystems may disappear too. This trend could have serious consequences for marine food webs.

The research, which was conducted on 11 coastal watersheds in the Gulf of Alaska, has documented an interesting paradox with important implications for coastal ecosystems. "Glacial watersheds comprise 30 percent of the Tongass National Forest and supply about 35 to 40 percent of the stream discharge," says Rick Edwards, a coauthor on the study. "These watersheds export dissolved organic matter that is remarkably biologically active in contrast to that found in other rivers. Generally, scientists expect that organic matter decreases in its quality as a food source as it ages, becoming less and less active over time." Read more ..

Inside Washington

The Saudis Take a Stroll on J Street

December 28th 2009

Contributors / Staff - Lenny Davis
Lenny Ben-David

Talk about a tough sale. Imagine being Saudi Arabia’s public relations firm in the United States in the months after the 9/11 attacks, which were perpetrated by 19 terrorists, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals. Shilling for a tarnished Saudi Arabia was the daunting task that faced Qorvis, a Washington-based PR company. The $14 million contract surely compensated.

In their 2002 contract, Qorvis promised to “draft and/or distribute talking points, press releases, fact sheets, and op-ed pieces in order to promote the [Saudi] Kingdom, its commitment to the war against terrorism, peace in the Middle East, and other issues pertinent to the Kingdom.”

Soon thereafter, a new organization appeared on the American scene, the “Alliance of Peace and Justice in the Middle East.” In April 2002, the organization ran radio spots on dozens of stations across the U.S. extolling the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by then-Crown Prince Abdullah and attacking Israel’s settlements.

According to one ad: “The [Saudis’] fair plan [would] end the senseless violence in the Mideast.” The plan involved Israel’s “withdrawal from the Palestinian land it has unjustly occupied for years. … There will be no more midnight raids and random searches, no more violence.” “Start the peace — end the occupation” is the phrase that ends the ads. It is followed by the words “paid for by the Alliance of Peace and Justice.”

Who was behind the alliance? One American Jewish activist tracked them back to a Virginia address, which just happened to be the offices of Qorvis. Read more ..

Sports on the Edge

The Absurdity of Athlete Worship

December 28th 2009

Sports Topics - Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods

For me, it started with Muhammad Ali. I can perfectly recall sitting in the living room with my father, watching as Ali danced around the ring. He moved with a rare mix of fluidity and power, dispatching one rough, plodding opponent after another. He seemed the perfect embodiment of masculine striving. But the best part was after the match had ended. That's when Ali would unleash one of his verbal rants. Full of braggadocio, Ali would proclaim to the world, "I am the greatest." And I believed him.

But why? Why was I so willing to listen to Ali? Why do we take any guidance from athletes? In the midst of Tiger Woods's Thanksgiving day car wreck and his apparent infidelity with multiple women, I can't help but wonder why we bother to make heroes of our sportsmen.

After all, everything about the lives of our celebrity athletes encompasses abnormality. From a young age, they are conditioned to believe that they are superior in a Darwinian sense. The moment these physical outliers are spotted on playgrounds, they are courted by "street agents" who fill their heads with dreams of dollars, endorsement deals, celebrity and all those other things that fulfill their adolescent desires to be "feared and worshiped." These promising youths (the fittest, the strongest) are promptly shipped off to shoe-sponsored sports camps where their talents are honed under the adoring gaze of coaches. Money, gifts, promises and special favors from unscrupulous agents, shoe executives and recruiters inevitably follow. And if they hit the big time, their images are beamed across the world with a dreamlike quality based on the persona of the hero. Read more ..

Fleischman and Chavistas

December 28th 2009
Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela is now the greatest threat to democracy in our hemisphere and is in fact the front line for Iran and other anti-Western regimes and ironically a communist or socialist ideology that even China and Russia have abandoned. His oil power and political long arm are slowly projecting his influence throughout Latin America. I agree with an earlier writer who states that the mainstream media has largely ignored this threat. Your many articles, including those by Luis Fleischman shine the light where it needs to go. Fleischman's writing, and that of others, on Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia and Bolivia is giving us a window into what is happening there. True to form, the mainstream media will only discover Venezuela as they have Yemen--when the crisis hits the top of the thermometer. By then it is generally too late.

Book Review

Is Alcohol the Future of Fuel?

December 28th 2009

Book Covers - Alcohol Can Be a Gas

Alcohol Can Be a Gas: Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century. David Blume. International Institute for Ecological Agriculture. 2007. 640 pages.

In his revised edition of Alcohol Can Be A Gas, David Blume provides an accurate, comprehensive case for the effective use of alcohol as a liquid fuel source. This book is far more than a survey of the basic issues surrounding ethanol. Organized as six books in one, the compendium presents Blume's vision for national utilization of alcohol as a solution to the nation's desire for transport fuels. It describes the business and economics of alcohol: how to make alcohol, alcohol co-products and how to use them to enhance products, and how to use alcohol as a fuel. The breadth and depth of information and the perspective that Blume brings to the work make this volume the definitive work on the subject of producing, selling, and using alcohol and its by-products. Assertions are backed by extensive references and solid science. Blume typically cites official government and academic sources.

Blume's insistence on “designing farming as a method of harvesting solar energy for multiple uses” (p.31) takes the book beyond single-issue thinking and offers integrated solutions to the challenges facing those seeking to grow food, produce and use liquid fuels, treat sewage, and more. The discussion in Chapter 3 provides a stand-alone manual on how to do farming right.

Blume's analysis refutes the old myth that alcohol production detracts from growing food. He also dispenses with the inaccurate assertions that alcohol production necessarily requires more energy than is obtained; that there isn't enough arable land; that it's ecologically unsound; that making alcohol takes away from food crops; that alcohol negatively impacts global warming; and more. Read more ..

The Edge of Terror

London Braces for Mumbai-style Terror Attack

December 21st 2009

Terrorism - Scotland Yard

Scotland Yard has warned commercial organizations in London to brace for a Mumbai-style attack, according to British media reports. Approximately two weeks ago, mincing no words during in a classified briefing in the City of London, detectives from SO15, the Metropolitan police counter-terrorism command, reportedly declared: “Mumbai is coming to London.”

During the November 2008 bloody urban warfare “commando-style” Jihad raid in Mumbai by 10 gunmen, 174 people were killed and more than 300 injured over three days of attacks on hotels and cafes.

One London anti-terror squad detective warned of a shooting and hostage-taking raid “involving a small number of gunmen with handguns and improvised explosive devices.”

The blunt declaration has underlined a belief in the UK that a terrorist cell already in the country may be preparing an attack on London early next year. The declaration and warning was transmitted through a “security forum” set up by police to provide business leaders, government and the emergency services officials and others with counter-terrorism insights. Read more ..

After the Holocaust

Historic Auschwitz Sign Recovered--Motives Still Unclear

December 21st 2009

History-Genocide - Arbeit Macht Frei

Thieves who made off with the infamous sign at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland were but ordinary criminals, say Polish authorities following the arrest of five men after an intensive search and a state of emergency in the region. “Arbeit macht Frei” reads the metal lettering (Work makes you free) over the gate to the death camp where more than 1 million Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and other enemies of Germany’s National Socialist state were murdered during the Second World War.

One survivor called the theft an attempt to deny the historicity of the Holocaust, or Shoah. Polish police said on December 21 that the suspects are but “ordinary criminals” rather than Nazi sympathizers.

The police are still attempting to determine how the large metal sign could have been removed from the Auschwitz gate, despite security guards and closed-circuit video cameras. The police were examining video tape over the December 19–20 weekend, and were also relying on hounds to sniff out the perpetrators of the outrage. Read more ..

The Rail's Edge

The High-Speed Rail Gravy Train

December 21st 2009

Transportation Topics - Shinkansen bullet train

The U.S. High Speed Rail Association’s October conference opened like any large Washington gathering. The congressmen were seated in the front row. A powerhouse Beltway law firm laid out prints of its lobbyists’ biographies on a display table. And as the upscale J.W. Marriott meeting room went dark, a short film offered romantic visions of bullet trains in America’s future.

 As far back as 1965, planners, transportation experts, visionaries, and American train buffs — President Lyndon Johnson among them — have coveted the sort of sleek high-speed trains that crisscross much of Europe and Asia at speeds of more than 180 miles per hour. But after millions and millions of dollars spent studying, planning, and mostly falling short, the American incarnation of high-speed passenger rail is but a single line that travels from Washington to Boston at an average speed of under 80 miles per hour.

Now, though, the Obama administration is looking to change all that, starting with $8 billion in federal stimulus money to be awarded starting this winter. Equally captivated, Congress is considering adding as much as $4 billion more in next year’s budget. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, is talking $50 billion after that. Read more ..

Inside Mexico

Mexico Mourns Deaths of 5,000 Compatriots Along the US Border

December 21st 2009

Latin American Topics - Rape Tree

More than 5,000 Mexicans have died over the last 15 years while crossing deserts, mountains, and rivers in order to reach the United States, according to a report by the National Committee on Human Rights of Mexico (CNDH). “During 2007 and 2008, the average number of Mexicans who died on that border was three for each two days,” declared the report which was released in observance of the International Migrants Day – December 18.

The CNDH is a government agency that operates in cooperation with the Mexican Office of the Public Defender. It asked that the report not serve only to remember the plight of migrants but to also cause the Mexican government to promote economic development and sustainable growth so as to allow Mexicans to remain at home rather than seek employment in the U.S. Read more ..

Inside Islam

Where Is the OIC When Mosques Are Attacked?

December 21st 2009

Terrorism - Pakistani Taliban

According to the Associated Press, Jihadi terrorists "stormed a mosque in Rawalpindi, killing at least 36 worshippers, including six military officers, during Friday prayers as they sprayed gunfire and threw grenades before blowing themselves up," Pakistani officials said. A military statement said four attackers hurled grenades and then opened fire as they rushed toward the mosque, located on Parade Lane in a military residential colony, just a few miles from the capital. Two Jihadists then blew themselves up inside, while the other two terrorists were killed in an exchange of gunfire.  Seventeen children and 10 civilians were killed. The dead included a major general, a brigadier, two lieutenant colonels, one major and a retired major as well as three regular soldiers, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.

Witnesses said two of the militants entered the mosque, which had up to 200 worshippers inside, while others ran into buildings nearby. Read more ..

Human Interaction

The Hormone of Love and Hate

December 21st 2009

Social Topics - Couple

According to a new study by an Israeli researcher the 'love' hormone oxytocin, that controls behaviors such as trust and empathy, also affects negative behaviors like jealousy and gloating.
It has been known for some time that the oxytocin hormone has an impact on positive feelings. The hormone is released in the body naturally during childbirth and sex. But the study by Dr. Simone Shamay-Tsoory of the University of Haifa also shows that this hormone has an impact on antisocial behaviors.

"Subsequent to these findings, we assume that the hormone is an overall trigger for social sentiments: When the person's association is positive, oxytocin bolsters pro-social behaviors; when the association is negative, the hormone increases negative sentiments," says Shamay-Tsoory.

According to a new study by an Israeli researcher the 'love' hormone oxytocin, that controls behaviors such as trust and empathy, also affects negative behaviors like jealousy and gloating.

It has been known for some time that the oxytocin hormone has an impact on positive feelings. The hormone is released in the body naturally during childbirth and sex. But the study by Dr. Simone Shamay-Tsoory of the University of Haifa also shows that this hormone has an impact on antisocial behaviors. Read more ..

The Afghan War

The Role of the Pashtuns in the Afghan Crisis

December 21st 2009

Afghan Topics - Afghani Taliban
Afghan Taliban

The West’s Afghan policy is in deep crisis, as eight years since the removal of the Taliban regime the country is experiencing rising violence. This is due to internal Afghan politics and history coupled with political and military mistakes made by the international community. The current situation has naturally led western politicians to suggest contradictory  approaches to Afghanistan with some calling for talks with ‘moderate’ Taliban which have largely been rejected, whilst other call for a continued commitment to countering the Taliban and the other armed groups. In reality, the effect of the debate is to emphasize how rudderless the Afghan policy is, whilst the Afghan political system remains moribund. 

The international community, with America in the lead, has made Afghanistan and Pakistan key issues in world affairs, and despite rising costs (the US has annually doubled its official defense costs in respect to Afghanistan, moving from under US $21 billion in 2001-2002, to a projected US $ 180 billion in 2009-2010), there remains a deep failure to understand the underlying dynamics of  the area. Policymakers seem to believe that as long as money and soldiers are ‘thrown’ at the problem it would eventually come to an end. In reality Afghanistan is a bottomless pit. This is something that the Soviets discovered - the more men and money they poured into Afghanistan, the more difficult it became to extricate themselves from the Afghan quagmire.

The author argues that new efforts are unlikely to succeed because of the Pashtun culture and the legacy of the Afghan Jihad. For this reason, the international community should  - instead of trying to ‘fix’ the Afghan problem by sending more troops and money - adopt a policy of containment that calls for a redeployment of resources. It is abundantly clear that despite billions of dollars and massive international efforts, many Afghans do not feel connected to their state. If anything, Afghans increasingly see the presence of the international community as an occupying force keeping a corrupt and decadent government in power. On the other hand, in the words of an Afghan man, "They [Taliban] collect 10 percent tax on all income, even from the government fields… So if you grow 100kg of wheat you pay 10kg and they give you a receipt and never charge extra or more." Read more ..

Inside China

Unfriendly Skies: Taiwan’s Exclusion from UN Agency Undermines Air Safety

December 21st 2009

Asia Topics - China airlines

In recent days, the United Nations celebrated International Civil Aviation Day, commemorating the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (also known as the Chicago Convention, after the city where the agreement was hammered out by delegates from 54 countries) which established the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), now a specialized agency within the UN system charged with developing international air transport “in a safe and orderly manner…on the basis of equality of opportunity and operated soundly and economically.” Read more ..

The American Way

Should American Heritage be Preserved?

December 21st 2009

Architecture - Ruins of Windsor Mississippi
Ruins of Windsor Plantation, Mississippi

Today we are bombarded with allusions to the “culture war,” the conflict over the basic values that govern public life in the West. The war is grounded in a clash between the traditional West with its roots in the Christian heritage and a growing disillusionment with truth and meaning itself arising from a materialistic and secularistic world view.

The full dimensions of the conflict are seldom recognized primarily because of the superficial understanding of the intellectual heritage of the West, a superficiality spelled out by E.D. Hirsch in his Cultural Literacy (1987). Furthermore, Stephen Prothero has maintained in his book Religious Literacy (2007) that even among Americans--who overwhelming purport to believe in God--there is a “lack [of] the most basic understanding of their own religious tradition.”

Paradoxically, despite our cultural illiteracy, we are absorbed in preserving, promoting, and disseminating what is touted as heritage. Under the banner of “historic preservation,” government agencies, private organizations, and specialists constantly urge us to preserve heritage in the form of vast quantities of buildings and artifacts. The rationalization is that these things will help us understand “who we are, where we came from, and what is the legacy that shapes. . . us,” as Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation once noted. Read more ..

Inside Africa

Pedophile Tourism Grows in Africa

December 21st 2009

Africa Topics - Kenya Strollers

A little-reported phenomenon is spreading in holiday resort areas of the developing countries, largely unreported by international or local press, and which goes under the benign name of “child sex tourism” (CST). This euphemistic term for a different brand of pedophilia has moved its focus, in the eastern hemisphere, from the tsunami-prone areas of Sri Lanka and points east to the coast of Kenya and Africa.

Pedophiles seek out and travel to those places where they are sure of finding children and young people ready for sexual relationships. Many “child sex tourists” –men and women- are “situational abusers” at home, but they also seek out children as partners with a trip to a foreign country. There they are known by no-one, will never meet the partner again, and the victims are easy prey, with little notion of their rights. Pedophile tourism is fueled by poverty, the Internet, ease of travel and weak law enforcement.

The laws of most developing countries in Africa are unprepared for this. Gambia has recently set up a hotline to inform on cases of sex tourism, and Senegal has a special anti-CST unit within the police force in two of its popular tourist destinations. But in Kenya’s present constitution, which goes back to 1963 independence, prostitution is not illegal even if living on the earnings of prostitution is termed a “misdemeanor.” Read more ..

Book Review

Poisoned Wells in Africa Make for Dirty Politics

December 21st 2009

Book Covers - Poisoned Wells

Poisoned Wells. The Dirty Politics of African Oil. Nicholas Shaxson. Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. 280 pages. 

“Oil,” wrote Ryszard Kapuscinski, “is a great temptation… the temptation of ease, strength, fortune, power…wealth achieved through lucky accident…” We know too that oil can be a curse; world politics and dirty deals centre on oil. A country where oil is found in large quantities is much more prone to conflict, and extremes of opulence and stinking, violent poverty. In “Poisoned Wells,” Nicholas Shaxson, zeroes in on the politics of oil along the West African coast-line, from Angola to the Niger Delta. It is a bumpy ride with plenty of pot-holes and nasty shocks along the way.

In 2005 the United States imported more oil from the Gulf of Guinea than from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. West African oil is in special demand: it is “light” and “sweet,” ideal for refining into motor fuels. Most of the region’s oil is off-shore, so that wars on the mainland can go on undisturbed –as happened in Angola, for example; and there are no pirates, no Suez Canal to prevent the transporting ships making a quick dash for America and Europe.

The author’s research, he says, taught him that the oil trade is about information; whoever knows the most makes the most money. Because of the complexity of the energy markets and their secrecy, transparency is difficult and corruption abounds. It’s everyone for himself. Read more ..

Robbing The Cradle Makes its Historical Point

December 21st 2009
I have often wondered just why the Iraqis and the Mesopotamians before them are trapped in such and uncivil society of bombings and beheadings even though that region is the so-called Cradle of Civilization. I found this answered excellently by Edwin Black in the excerpt from Banking on Baghdad (see Robbing the Cradle Page One Dec 14, 2009). When I lived in the United States I remember the effect of the Watts riots and similar urban devestation. We can see it now even in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. No wonder a country like Iraq which has been historically decimated time after time has never been able to recover. They invented writing and counting, but none of that matters, I guess, when eveything is continually brutalized into ashes and misery.

The Ancient Edge

Robbing the Cradle

December 14th 2009

Book Covers - Banking on Baghdad

This article is based on the Banking on Baghdad--Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (Dialog Press). Buy it here

Mesopotamia—now known as Iraq--enjoyed a 2,000-year head start on Western civilization. What happened?

Part of the answer lays millennia before our current turbulent times. Understanding this pivotal land and its peoples is necessary.

A single ancient people did not monopolize the historic territory between the Tigris and the Euphrates to create one cohesive, shining civilization as a beacon to others. Mesopotamia was in fact a diverse, often contentious, network of competing city-states. At different times, in different centuries BCE, cities such as Uruk, Lagash, and Eridu in the south, and Kish, Nippur, and Sippar in the midsection, as well as Assur, Nineveh, and Nimrud in the north, each flourished and made their mark. These city-states were ruled by their own kings, developed their own gods and cults, spoke their own languages and dialects, and manifested their own distinctive cultures.

A succession of disparate groups came from near and far to conquer the developing prize of Mesopotamia, and each conqueror was in turn conquered. The Semitic Akkadians arose among the original Sumerians, for whom Sumer was named. In the third millennium BCE, the Akkadian king Sargon created history’s first “empire,” extending his political reign, military dominance, and commercial primacy from western Persia, through Syria, to what is now eastern Turkey. But Sargon’s almost 150-year dynasty was overrun by the Guti mountain people. The Guti ruled until the Sumerians regained supremacy, only to be succeeded by Amorites from the west, and then the Elamites from the Zagros Mountains. Other invaders included the Indo-European Hittites from Anatolia and the obscure Hurrians and Kassites.

These invading and pervading groups destroyed and built up the city-states between the two rivers, as well as those in surrounding lands. During Mesopotamia’s golden millennia, each of these dynasties and empires, no matter how transient, purloined or planted something valuable, advancing the ever more complex culture growing atop the ancient Sumerian foundation. Over 3,000 years—perhaps 120 generations—the region became not a cradle but a veritable engine of civilization, energizing the entire Fertile Crescent, that is, the lands from the Nile Valley up through Palestine and Syria into the Tigris-Euphrates valley and beyond. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

UN Investigates Iran's Smuggling of Nuclear Weapons Technology through Taiwan

December 14th 2009

Iran - Ahmadinejad Nuke

The United Nations is looking into claims that the Islamic Republic of Iran is establishing a smuggling network to import specialized equipment it needs to fashion nuclear weapons. According to recent reports, it is feared that companies in Taiwan are being convinced to obtain needed parts for nuclear weapons. This comes following growing pressures from the UN and third parties such as the United States for Iran to stand-down on its nuclear program. It uranium enrichment program is believed to be aimed at creating nuclear weapons.

Western intelligence suggests that Iran's Ministry of Defense have held a series of meeting with companies based in Taiwan to buy hundreds of pressure transducers, which can be used to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iran has been desperate to acquire the equipment for more than a year, but has been frustrated by the refusal of European and US companies to sell material that might be used for its nuclear program.

Iran's Nukes

House to Take up Gas Sanctions on Iran

December 14th 2009

Iran - Iran Nuclear Equipment

The House is slated to vote in the coming days on bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation that targets companies supplying Iran with gasoline or helping the country expand its refining system. Iran is a major oil producer, but imports up to 40 percent of its gasoline because it lacks adequate refining capacity.

The plan is among several under consideration in Congress and the White House to pressure Iran over its nuclear program. The bill, sponsored by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), has 343 co-sponsors. It would allow sanctions against companies that ship gasoline and other refined products to Iran, and also targets related services such as insurance and financing.

A bipartisan Iran sanctions package that the Senate Banking Committee unanimously approved in late October also targets the country's refined petroleum imports. However, the plans retain White House waiver authority that already applies to other energy sanctions under the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996. Read more ..

Inside Islamic Europe

Growing Concern over Imposition of Violent Islamic Law in Spain

December 14th 2009

Islamic Topics - Muslims praying in Spain
Muslims praying in Lerida, Spain

Sources in Spain’s Ministry of Interior express growing concern over the rise of Islamic law, known as sharia to Muslims, and the increase of Muslim separatism. In Spanish mosques, groups are emerging which promote Islamic judges and policing that have a growing influence over Muslims living in Spain. While this has long been known in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and France, it has now been detected in rural areas of Catalonia and in towns such as Tarragona, Gironés and Segarra.

The mosques in question are almost uniformly in the control of Salafist jihadis. Such jihadis have espoused separatism and violent struggle with the West at least since the 1980s.

Muslim clerics in Catalonia, for example, call upon the faithful to not befriend native Catalonians nor belong to Catalonian civic organizations. The imams demand that Muslims buy only “halal” food (e.g. meat slaughtered according to Muslim ritual), and that they avoid banks since these ostensibly violate Muslim abhorrence of usury. Muslim parents are warned to not allow their daughters to use the gymnasiums in the schools nor on any account should they use swimming pools. Muslims are told to remove their daughters from school upon the first appearance of menstruation. Read more ..

The Afghan War

Taliban's Counter Strategy is Based on US Declared Strategy

December 14th 2009

Afghan Topics - Afghani Taliban
Afghan Taliban

Now that we know the administration's new strategy for Afghanistan, what is the Taliban strategy against the United States?

Such a question is warranted to be able to project the clash between the two strategies and assess the accuracy of present U.S. policies in the confrontation with the forces it is fighting against in that part of the world.

So, how would the Taliban/al-Qaida war room counter NATO and the Afghan Government based on the Obama Administration's battle plan?

Strategic Perceptions

The Jihadi war room is now aware that the administration has narrowed its scope to defeat the so-called al-Qaida organization while limiting its goal to depriving the Taliban from achieving full victory, i.e. depriving them “from the momentum.” In strategic wording this means that the administration won't give the time and the means, let alone the necessary long term commitment to fully defeat the Taliban as a militia and militant network.

The jihadist strategists now understand that Washington's advisers still recommend talking to the Taliban, the entire Taliban, but only after the latter would feel weak and pushed back enough to seek such talks. Underneath this perception, the Salafi Islamists' analysts realize that present American analysis concludes that al-Qaida and the Taliban are two different things, and that it is possible to defeat the first and eventually engage the second. Read more ..

Edge of Climate Change

Nation's Forests and Soils Can Store 50 Years of U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions

December 14th 2009

Environment Topics - Amazon rainforest

The first phase of a groundbreaking national assessment estimates that U.S. forests and soils could remove additional quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere as a means to mitigate climate change.

The lower 48 states in the U.S. hypothetically have the potential to store an additional 3-7 billion metric tons of carbon in forests, if agricultural lands were to be used for planting forests. This potential is equivalent to 2 to 4 years of America’s current CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.
“Carbon pollution is putting our world—and our way of life—in peril,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in a keynote speech at the global conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark. “By restoring ecosystems and protecting certain areas from development, the U.S. can store more carbon in ways that enhance our stewardship of land and natural resources while reducing our contribution to global warming.”

Sexual Assault on Campus

Barriers Curb Reporting of Campus Rape and Discourage Victims

December 14th 2009

Social Topics - Sullen Woman

Buried in the pages of the 2006 student handbook for Dominican College, a small Catholic institution in the northern suburbs of New York City, were five dense paragraphs about what would happen if a student reported a rape.

The college would investigate. That much is required by law. Evidence would be collected and preserved. And if the alleged rapist were another student, campus disciplinary proceedings would ensue, allowing both sides to speak before a hearing board.

The policy was tested in May 2006, with Megan Wright, 19, a freshman from New Jersey. After drinking heavily with others in a friend’s dorm room, she woke up in pain on a Sunday morning, with blood in her underwear. On Monday, she elbowed through a lunchtime rush of students to the glass office of director of residence life Carlyle Hicks to report that she had been raped by a man — or men — she could not identify.

But Wright found cold comfort in Hicks’ response.

“He didn’t seem to have a clue,” says Wright’s mother Cynthia McGrath, who attended the meeting. Hicks didn’t mention a word about a campus disciplinary process, says McGrath, or even ask if the shy redhead was okay. “Just a lack of concern, like he couldn’t be bothered.” Read more ..

Turkey on the Edge

Turkey Pulls Further Away from The West

December 14th 2009

Turkish Topics - Turkish Anger

On December 7, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with US President Barack Obama in Washington. The meeting follows Obama's April visit to Turkey, when he reached out to the Turks to realign Ankara with the US after the tumultuous years of the Bush administration.

Despite Obama's efforts, Turkish foreign policy is drifting further away from the US. The cause of this is that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in Ankara sees the world very differently from the US administration. The AKP's foreign policy is shaped by "econo-Islamism," a doctrine blending business deals with a religio-political view of the world.

Since coming to power in 2002, the AKP has pursued rapprochement with Russia, Sudan, and Iran, and has even gone so far as establishing ties with Hamas. In the West, this orientation of Turkish foreign policy had until recently been interpreted as neo-Ottomanist, i.e. a "secular" attempt to reassert itself in the Ottoman realm, to the benefit of the Euro-Atlantic community. Read more ..

Africa on the Edge

Nigeria's Oil Boom Has Shunted Aside Farmers and Made the Country Dependent on Foreign Food

December 14th 2009

Africa Topics - Nigeria Oil

Large tracts of Nigeria’s fertile land has been abandoned since the oil boom attracted millions into the cities over the past five decades, leaving Africa’s most populous country dependant on food imports.

In her book, “Dinner with Mugabe,” Heidi Holland records events leading up to the “land reform” carried out by the Zimbabwean president, starting in the late 1990s. She reports an interview with a former Agriculture minister, appointed by Mugabe, a White farmer called Denis Norman.

According to Norman, in 1997 the war veterans who helped Mugabe come to power in 1980 complained bitterly that they had won the country’s freedom but had been overlooked, and demanded a large monthly payment, for life. Initially they were 27,000, but the number jumped to almost double.

The British government at this point was not ready to buy the farmers out, as Mugabe had been led to believe. There was not enough money in the Treasury. Mugabe, instead of saying he would introduce legislation for an equitable distribution of land, eventually told the war veterans that they had indeed been promised land, so perhaps they should just take it. Of course they did.  Read more ..

Education on the Edge

The Dropout Crisis

December 14th 2009

Contributors / Staff - Armstrong Williams Headshot
Armstrong Williams

In his second inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt lamented: “I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.” From that lament the New Deal took root.

More than a pinching of the bare necessities, the nation President Barack Obama sees is plagued by ill-education featuring high school dropout rates routinely soaring past 50 percent in major urban areas where the underprivileged predominate. The ailment threatens the nation’s democracy, economy, and social fabric. It is aggravating racial or ethnic divisions. It confirms the insight of H.G. Wells that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deserve some praise for embryonic federal steps to address the dropout problem by encouraging charter schools and offering hundreds of millions of dollars in economic stimulus funds to innovative non-profit educational programs with promising or proven track records. But the national effort is vastly incommensurate with the magnitude of the high school dropout danger. President Obama needs to provoke a national conversation and high voltage concern over the disaster that is already upon us Read more ..

Book Review

Chaos Scenario is a Forewarning to All

December 14th 2009

Book Covers - Chaos Scenario

The Chaos Scenario. Bob Garfield. Stielstra Publishing. 294 pages.

When advertiser-supported media -- print, broadcast, online, whatever -- cease to exist as audiences shrink below the critical mass needed by businesses to justify placing advertising therein, it's what Advertising Age columnist and NPR host Bob Garfield calls ``The Chaos Scenario.''

He began documenting this meltdown in 2005 with a column that engendered widespread industry hysterics. The book took all this time to write, he said, because the chaos was ongoing and accelerating. But he told me at the Miami Book Fair International that he was compelled to write this. Driven. This was something that needed saying.

If he'd managed to do it quickly, this book would have been even more explosive and mind-blowing, four years ago. Now, his tour of the emerging media-less landscape is slightly less shocking. Most mavens and everyone else already know what's ahead and take Facebook, Twitter, blogs, social networking, crowdsourcing and all that other Googlely stuff pretty much for granted.

But Garfield's take remains invaluable and is still quite timely, even urgent. Major components of the scenarios he describes are still unfolding. For example, Jay Leno's nightly TV chat show is a direct result of NBC's plummeting ratings and the relatively low cost of producing that show compared to (more or less) original dramatic presentations. Daily newspapers' diminishing circulation numbers have publishing execs considering patently suicidal tactics like charging for online access or withholding content from the great god, Google. (Good luck with that one, Rupert!) Read more ..

The Moment for Energy Independence Has Passed Us By

December 14th 2009
Last year when gasoline was hovering at about $5 per gallon, and the country was in an uproar over imported oil, we had a once in a decade--perhaps once in a generation--opportunity to start the movement to get off of oil. The economy tanked, the politicians faked us out with compromise legislation, the uproar became muted as people applauded a very bad program known as Cash for Clunkers. Now we can only wait the moment when oil supplies are squeezed shut due to machinations in the Persian Gulf. What a waste of energy--so to speak.

Sexual Assault on Campus

Sexual Assault on Campus Often Shrouded in Secrecy

December 7th 2009

Social Topics - Sullen Woman

Three hours into deliberations by the University of Virginia’s Sexual Assault Board, UVA junior Kathryn Russell sat with her mother in a closet-like room in sprawling Peabody Hall. Down the corridor, two professors and two students were deciding her fate. Russell was replaying in her mind, endlessly, details of her allegations of rape when, she remembers, Shamim Sisson, the board chair, stepped into the room and delivered the order: You can’t talk about the verdict to anyone.

That stern admonition was a reminder of the silence Russell had been keeping since, she says, she struggled to break free from a fellow student’s grip in her dorm. That’s the account she gave local authorities, who declined to prosecute. And that’s what, in May 2004, she told the UVA Sexual Assault Board, whose decision she’d considered “my last resort.” Read more ..

History on the Edge

Japan's Attack on Pearl Harbor - Were They Just Playing Our Game?

December 7th 2009

Book Covers - Imperial Cruise

This article is based on the New York Times bestselling The Imperial Cruise (Little Brown Dialog Press). Buy it here

Sixty-eight years ago, Japan attacked America’s naval base at Pearl Harbor. Millions of soldiers and civilians were killed in the brutal Pacific war that would follow. My father — one of the famous flag raisers on Iwo Jima — was among the brave, young men who went off to the Pacific to fight for his country. So naturally, the war fascinated me. But I always wondered: why did we fight in the Pacific? Yes, there was Pearl Harbor, but why did the Japanese attack us in the first place?

In search of an answer, I read deeply into the diplomatic history of the 1930s, about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy on Asia, and his preparation — or lack thereof — for a major conflict there. But I discovered that I was studying the wrong President Roosevelt. The one who had the greater effect on Japan’s behavior was Theodore Roosevelt — whose efforts to end the war between Japan and Russia earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

When Theodore Roosevelt was president, three decades before World War II, the world was focused on the bloody Russo-Japanese War, a contest for control of North Asia. President Roosevelt was no fan of the Russians: “No human beings, black, yellow or white, could be quite as untruthful, as insincere, as arrogant — in short, as untrustworthy in every way — as the Russians,” he wrote in August 1905, near the end of the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese, on the other hand, were “a wonderful and civilized people,” Roosevelt wrote, “entitled to stand on an absolute equality with all the other peoples of the civilized world.”

Roosevelt knew that Japan coveted the Korean Peninsula as a springboard to its Asian expansion. Back in 1900, when he was still vice president, Roosevelt had written, “I should like to see Japan have Korea.” When, in February 1904, Japan broke off relations with Russia, President Roosevelt said publicly that he would “maintain the strictest neutrality,” but privately he wrote, “The sympathies of the United States are entirely on Japan’s side.”

Inside Islam

Swiss Ban on Muslim Minarets stirs European debate

December 7th 2009

Islamic Topics - Swiss Minaret and Church

In a November 29 referendum, a surprising 57.5 percent of Swiss voters passed a measure that would ban the building of further minarets at mosques in the country. There are currently four minarets in Switzerland; however, these will not be affected by the vote. The measure had been supported by two populist parties: the Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union. Currently, there are 400,000 Muslims living in the mountainous bastion of bank accounts, in a total population of 7.7 million. The Swiss government issued regrets over the poll but says it will respect the result.

The Swiss justice minister also said the European Court of Human Rights could strike down the Sunday vote, which incurred swift condemnation at home and abroad for banning the towers used to put out the Islamic call to prayer. The 47-nation Council of Europe said that banning "new minarets in Switzerland raises concerns as to whether fundamental rights of individuals, protected by international treaties, should be subject to popular votes." Switzerland presides over the council, which is associated with the European Court of Human Rights. The court rules on breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the ban would come into force immediately, but indicated that it could be overturned. "The ban contradicts the European Convention on Human Rights," Widmer-Schlumpf is cited as saying. The minister added, that this was not "a referendum against Islam ... but a vote directed against fundamentalist developments." She defended the referendum as being "about minarets and not, of course, about the Islamic community," she said. "We are interested in a multi-religious society in Switzerland."

France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he was "a bit scandalized" by the vote, which amounts to "oppressing a religion." "I hope that the Swiss will go back on this decision rather quickly," Kouchner said. "It is an expression of intolerance, and I detest intolerance." Read more ..

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