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April 03, 2004

Best email I got all week

10-year-old TMW fan Evan S. sends photos of his school project, based on Sparky's 1992 presidential bid. (Longtime readers and/or purchasers of The Great Big Book of Tomorrow will remember that Sparky's running mate that year was the Weekly World News Space Alien.)


April 02, 2004

Do you think...

...that Air America will teach conservatives who always complain about the liberal bias at CNN what real liberal bias looks--or at least sounds--like?

They're still working out the rough patches, but lord I hope they prosper. It's not as bad these days, but there have been points over the past three years when this little piece of public ground I occupy, over here on the left side of things, has been a lonely place indeed. When this cartoon ran, less than a month after The Events Of, asking--very reasonably, I thought--the basic question, why do they hate us?--well, from the email I got in response, you would have thought that I had advocated surrendering to al Qaeda and immediately installing Osama bin Laden as supreme ruler of the United States. One of the more mild correspondents wrote, with apparent sincerity, "I know you live in New York--surely you do not support the terrorists?"


I had dinner with Ted Rall the other night, and we were talking about how people always say to us, "You've sure got plenty of material these days." Rall made a good point, which is that there may be plenty of material, but it's pretty damned tedious--it's as if we're stuck in political Kindergarten, constantly having to restate the obvious: Democrats are NOT traitors!

Well, duh.

Yes, stupidity like that is always grist for the mill. But it can turn on you, and grind you down, when you're immersed in it from the moment you turn on your computer in the morning til the moment you pack it in at the end of the day. There are a hell of a lot of people saying a hell of a lot of stupid things these days, and unfortunately, well-reasoned and nuanced pieces on even-the-liberal-NPR are simply not an effective counterweight. Especially when NPR is as likely as not to present a conservative commentator's view of things, because the last thing anyone wants in this day and age is to be tarred as--gasp--liberal.

So it's a good thing that there's a loud, rambunctious, feisty (and, yes, mainstream) liberal radio network. I don't care if I agree with every damn thing every host says or not--I'm just glad they're out there, helping to nudge the public debate back to some measure of sanity.

With any luck, maybe we can work our way back up to political first grade.


Friday roundup

Odds and ends you have probably seen elsewhere, but if I let that sort of thing stop me, I'd never have anything to write about.

There's more on the private-contractors-who-carry-guns-and-act-like-soldiers business in the Times today, here:

"This is basically a new phenomenon: corporatized private military services doing the front-line work soldiers used to do," said Peter W. Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has written a book on the industry, "Corporate Warriors" (Cornell University Press, 2003).

"And they're not out there screening passengers at the airports," Mr. Singer said. "They're taking mortar and sniper fire."


Though there have been private militaries since the dawn of war, the modern corporate version got its start in the 1990's after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At that time, many nations were sharply reducing their military forces, leaving millions of soldiers without employment. Many of them went into business doing what they knew best: providing security or training others to do the same.

The proliferation of ethnic conflicts and civil wars in places like the Balkans, Haiti and Liberia provided employment for the personnel of many new companies. Business grew rapidly after the Sept. 11 attacks prompted corporate executives and government officials to bolster their security overseas.

But it was the occupation of Iraq that brought explosive growth to the young industry, security experts said. There are now dozens, perhaps hundreds of private military concerns around the world. As many as two dozen companies, employing as many as 15,000 people, are working in Iraq.

They are providing security details for diplomats, private contractors involved in reconstruction, nonprofit organizations and journalists, security experts said. The private guards also protect oil fields, banks, residential compounds and office buildings.

And also here:

This raises some obvious questions. Shouldn't war be a government function? Why rely on the private sector for our national defense, even if it is largely a supporting role? Part of the reason is practical: since the end of the cold war, the United States military has been shrinking, from 2.1 million in 1989 to 1.4 million today. Supporters of privatization argue that there simply aren't enough soldiers to provide a robust presence around the world, and that by drafting private contractors to fix helicopters, train recruits and cook dinner, the government frees up bona fide soldiers to fight the enemy. (Of course, in the field, the line between combatant and noncombatant roles grow fuzzier, particularly because many of the private soldiers are armed.) Private contractors are supposed to be cheaper, too, but their cost effectiveness has not been proved.

Low manpower and cost savings aren't the only reasons these companies appeal to the Pentagon. For one, substituting contactors for soldiers offers the government a way to avoid unpopular military forays. According to Myles Frechette, who was President Bill Clinton's ambassador to Colombia, private companies performed jobs in Latin America that would have been politically unpalatable for the armed forces. After all, if the government were shipping home soldiers' corpses from the coca fields, the public outcry would be tremendous. However, more than 20 private contractors have been killed in Colombia alone since 1998, and their deaths have barely registered.

This points to the biggest problem with the outsourcing of war: there is far less accountability to the American public and to international law than if real troops were performing the tasks. In the 1990's, several employees of one company, DynCorp, were implicated in a sex-trafficking scandal in Bosnia involving girls as young as 12. Had these men been soldiers, they would have faced court-martial proceedings. As private workers, they were simply put on the next plane back to America.

(Update: more from the author of this piece, Barry Yeoman, here.)

Meanwhile, at home...the Bush Administration is again stonewalling the 9/11 commission--this time trying to keep them from seeing Clinton Administration papers. And a speech Condi Rice was scheduled to give on 9/11/01 gives us some insight into just how concerned the Bushies were about terrorism on 9/10/01 (hint: not very). And a former FBI translator says the administration knew that al Qaeda was planning to attack the US--with airplanes.

And as if that weren't enough for the Gang that Can't Shoot Straight to be dealing with, it looks like the Plame investigation is about to heat up again:

Prosecutors investigating whether someone in the Bush administration improperly disclosed the identity of a C.I.A. officer have expanded their inquiry to examine whether White House officials lied to investigators or mishandled classified information related to the case, lawyers involved in the case and government officials say. Advertisement

In looking at violations beyond the original focus of the inquiry, which centered on a rarely used statute that makes it a felony to disclose the identity of an undercover intelligence officer intentionally, prosecutors have widened the range of conduct under scrutiny and for the first time raised the possibility of bringing charges peripheral to the leak itself.

The expansion of the inquiry's scope comes at a time when prosecutors, after a hiatus of about a month, appear to be preparing to seek additional testimony before a federal grand jury, lawyers with clients in the case said. It is not clear whether the renewed grand jury activity represents a concluding session or a prelude to an indictment.

Politicians never seem to remember that the coverup often causes more trouble than the crime.

The ventriloquist's dummy

The news that George Bush and Dick Cheney will appear before the 9/11 commission together had me thinking that it might be time for a sequel to this cartoon, from June 2001. But now that the same idea's been referenced in the headline to this Maureen Dowd column, as well as in this cartoon by the extraordinary Tom Toles, I think the moment has passed.

You can still buy t-shirts and other fabulous products featuring Dick Cheney and his Little Pal Georgie here, however.


April 01, 2004


Whenever there's a decline in the death rate in Iraq, whenever there are fewer soldiers killed or maimed than in the month preceeding, you'll see a lot of bluster and hyperbole coming from right wingers: things are going great! We can sure see the light at the end of the tunnel NOW!

Well, we've heard about that light at the end of the tunnel before. Sometimes it turns out to be an onrushing train.

I don't like to do the inverse, to jump on every report of a fatality as proof that I am right and all who oppose me are wrong. But given that the mutilated bodies of Americans--either contractors or CIA guys, depending on who you believe--are now being dragged triumphantly through the streets by cheering throngs...well, I think I speak for a lot of people when I respectfully ask the next right winger who might be tempted, in a month or two, or whenever the next lull hits, to write about how we've really turned a corner NOW--to instead, perhaps, consider shutting the fuck up.

Update: Lot of people are saying they were mercenaries.


Majority Report (the Janeane Garofolo and Sam Seder radio show on the network-named-after-a-CIA-airline) has a companion blog.


March 31, 2004


Decided to make better use of the sidebars, so I've moved a few things around. Among other things, this allows me to get rid of the notes about t-shirts and booksignings and so on that were always stuck up above the blog. Which means you'll have to retrain yourself to read from the top of the page, rather than skipping over the first few paragraphs. Hey, I've got your number.

I'm also considering accepting a limited amount of advertising, to help defray costs, but under very specific and arbitrary guidelines--for instance, it doesn't feel right to me to accept advertising from specific political candidates, given what I do for a living.

This redesign does free up space for me to donate to worthwhile causes, such as the pro-choice march on April 25. I can't make any promises, of course, but charities and nonprofits are encouraged to contact me (contact info now incorporated into the FAQ button over to your right).

Finally, my solemn pledge to you: as God is my witness, this site will never, ever feature blinking, flashing, animated advertising of any sort. I really hate that crap.

Thumbs up so far...

...on the radio network named after a clandestine CIA airline. I was dubious, but I'm enjoying it.

...don't overlook Randi (sp?) Rhodes, after Franken. They're not really promoting her, but she's really on fire. I think she may be the breakout star of this thing.

Like a coin that won't get tossed

If any of you are interested, Terry Gross has a pretty good (and I believe, pretty rare) interview with Neil Young up on the Fresh Air website (part one and part two).

I saw his Greendale show at Radio City Music Hall a few weeks back. I bought the CD some months before but promptly lost it in some stack of papers or something, so I was completely unfamiliar with the new music. It's a rambling song cycle about three generations of a family living in a small coastal town, and he presents the music onstage accompanied by deliberately primitive video animation and live actors lip synching the lyrics. I've been listening to Neil Young for an awfully long time now, and I've seen any number of his self-re-invention tours--the synth/computer stuff, the various forays into hardcore country, the time at the Fillmore when he played an entire set of unfamiliar blues and rockabilly material, took an hour and a half intermission and then came back out and played the same set again (he was recording it for what would eventually become "This Note's for You"). Anyway, I don't go to a Neil Young concert expecting him to be Fat Elvis in Vegas, playing his Greatest Hits for the ten millionth time, but a lot of people apparently do--in between each song, as he set up the next one with a rambling narrative, there were morons in the audience screaming for "Down by the River" or whatever--to the point that he finally lost his patience and snapped, "Shut up, asshole!" Most of the audience applauded the sentiment, to their credit.

He had me for most of the set, though I have to admit my attention started to lag toward the end--it's a lot, asking an audience to sit through an entire set of mostly-unfamiliar material. So by the time he did get to the greatest hits, my energy was drained. But that's what I admire about Neil Young--he does what he wants to do, and you can either come along for the ride or not.

Why it is important that Tom Friedman post a correction

(Regular readers know what this is about. If you're new to the party, you might want to go read this).

As a reader suggested, Friedman probably feels justified in not correcting his t-shirt anecdote because he's simply relaying what someone else heard. If I write, "A man on the street told me that Tom Friedman's columns are written by a team of trained monkeys," then the only factual assertion is that this is what some guy on the street told me, and I guess I have no obligation to set the record straight. Even if it is repeatedly pointed out to me that Tom Friedman actually does write his own columns, and doesn't even own a single trained monkey.

But do I owe my readers a correction when the demonstrably false anecdote I have broadcast becomes a widely-accepted urban legend?

From the San Jose Mercury News:

Grubba had heard about the guy in a similar predicament who sold a T-shirt that said, ``I lost my job to India and all I got was this (lousy) T-shirt.'' The man reportedly made oodles of money.

Ironically, the story is about some workers whose jobs were offshored, who came up with the gimmick of selling themselves on eBay. Probably not the sort of triumphalist anecdote Friedman is likely to use.

At any rate, I really think Friedman needs to set the record straight on this one.

UPDATE: Rick Perlstein has an article on outsourcing in the Village Voice, which mentions the whole Friedman/t-shirt thing.

Air America

Not the old secret CIA airline, but rather, the new liberal talk radio network, which debuts today. (Sadly, my invitation to last night's shindig must have gotten lost in the mail.)

Here's the list of their launch stations. (It says they'll be streaming too.)

And if you want to wish them luck, or suggest any, uh, guests, you can do so here.

(...honestly, if I can't even get in as a guest on the liberal talk radio network, I might as well pack it in.)

(...their site may not be, you will pardon the expression, ready for prime time quite yet--the links above seem only to work sporadically.)


March 28, 2004

Yeah, I know

Ted Rall and I wrote very similar cartoons this week. And we both came up with the concept independently, all by our lonesomes. Sometimes these things happen. (More frequently with the mainstream daily political cartoonists, who often come up with the same idea in herds of ten and twenty.)


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