Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Riddle of The Economist on Iran and Turkey

I read The Economist every week. I actually pay for a subscription, receive it through the U.S. Postal service, and read a large percentage of it. You can read it at, but I like the old physical format. At a time when most newspapers in the U.S. simply re-issue press releases from corporations and politicians, and even the NY Times seems like little more than a collection of Asssociated Press blogs, The Economist actually does a good job reporting what is going on the world of business and politics.

That said, they often mix editorial into news articles, and they can be astonishingly arrogant. Two bits of the July 21st, 2007 issue cry out for comment even more than usual.

There is an editorial on Turkey, "Of mullahs and majors," that democracy advocates should be able to agree with: If a moderate Islamic party has governed well (compared to its predecessors), why should it be considered undemocratic simply because it is Islamic?

But in the main news article, "Turkey's election: A battle for the future," the first sentence is "On July 22nd Turkey, still an adolescent democracy, goes to the polls."

Adolescent? In the rhealm of democracy is adolescence a matter of decades since voting begins, or are there other criteria? Take Britain, the home of The Economist, with editorial offices in London. What about the House of Lords? Is that a sign of democratic adolescence?

What about the United States, where the 38 million people of California get two votes in the U.S. Senate, just the same as 640 thousand people in North Dakota. Isn't such lack of democracy a sign of arrested development, and therefore adolescense?

Then there is the "special report on Iran", in which the article "The revolution strikes back" reports: "Although it has elements of democracy, including an elected president and parliament, the state is not ultimately controlled by elected institutions." In the U.S. the state is ultimately controlled by the Supreme Court; I don't recall ever having a chance to vote for or against that gang of black-robed jackals. And the politicians are mostly bought and sold by corporations.

Next sentence: "And even the elected bit of the system is a backstage game of personalities and factions, not a transparent process." What about corporate lobbyists. Do they have those in Iran? Are they banned from the halls of Parliament in Britain.

The Economist is, at times, critical of the state of democracy in Britain. I would certainly not want to have the task of arguing that Iran is a model democracy. I am a modern secular person, not an advocate of any religion. But I always wonder: are millions of people around the world shaking their heads, reading what I read and thinking, "those crazy Brit hypocrits," or are people actually lapping this up, feeling superior to those who have not inherited the pride of empire, if not the actual British empire?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Of Salmon, Green Voters and Vineyards

Mike Thompson has a lot of environmentalist voters in his district. The predominantly Democratic 1st Congressional District of California is mostly rural, covering the northern California coast from the Oregon border to southern Mendocino County, then swinging inland to lap into the suburbs of Sacramento.

As recently as twenty years ago the votes of citizens who worked in the timber industry, as loggers, foresters, and mill workers, were important in this district. But as all the trees were clearcut and the mills closed down, the new people who moved into the district saw it as a place to live amidst natural beauty. They mostly consider themselves environmentalists, whether they are registered to vote Republican, Democrat, Green Party, or independent (called Decline to State in California).

Mike Thompson has a Democratic Party constituency that is much more liberal than he is. During the years of Republican dominance in Congress he prided himself on being a centrist who voted with the Republicans on issues like tax cuts for the rich. In return the Republicans had no problem with doing some things for Congressman Thompson's donors in the timber and wine industries.

The Democratic political party in his district is formidable. Republicans have mostly been relegated to winning county supervisor seats in the most conservative areas. No Republican has provided a serious contest for a seat in Congress or the state assembly or state senate in over a decade. In a recent election in Mendocino County the Green Party candidate came in second after the Democrat. A number of Green Party members have been elected to seats in "minor" offices.

So it is important to the Democratic party machine that they appear to be environmentalists, and serious environmentalists at that. They have to balance that against their traditional financial support from the timber industry, real estate interests, and wine industry. The timber industry is dying, so that is not a problem. The wine industry is the most environmentally destructive business in the area. Democratic Party politicians and paid staff don't want to talk about that. Mike Thompson was instrumental in creating the Wine Caucus in Congress and is its Democratic Party co-chair.

So the Democrat machine has specialized in being for environmentalist causes, but being unable to actually get enough votes in Congress to hurt their campaign donors.

That is no longer enough now that the Democrats control the state legislature and Congress. The Democrats have gone to great lengths to secure their power; they don't want to endanger it by alienating donors or environmentalists voters. Democrats in the rank-and-file want action on the environment and on Iraq, not empty gestures.

Mike Thompson illustrates traits of a consummate politician. He has found two magic keys that make it unlikely a Green Party candidate will ever threaten to take his seat based on his environmental record.

One is throwing tiny bits of federal money at conservation projects. These typically take farm or timberland and convert it to a park or conservancy district. Often most of the money is raised by private donors. The work is done by environmental groups, but they must beg a Congressman, in this case Mike Thompson, to grease the skids. In return they are expected to praise Mr. Thompson's somewhat sketchy environmental record when he runs for office.

The second method is not always available, but the Klamath River and its related irrigation projects have provided the perfect opportunity for Mr. Thompson, who seized it with gusto. In 2002 large number of salmon died in the Klamath River due to low water flows. Mike Thompson earned his environmentalist Red Badge of Courage by piling up some 500 pounds of dead fish in front of the Interior Department. It was a great photo shoot. To this day ask most people in this district what they know about Congressman Thompson, and they will say "he's the guy who was mad about the dead salmon."

Lately Democrats in Congress have revived the issue. They believe they can link Vice-President Dick Cheney to the salmon kill. It was politics: the water the salmon needed was diverted to farmers in Oregon, likely Republican voters. Actually, they just took their regular amounts of irrigation water, but it was a low-water year, so the salmon suffered.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat said: "Thompson said the reduced river flow "wasn't about salmon or water, it was about electoral votes in Oregon."" The important political lesson to note here is that these farmers (and voters) were not in Mike Thompson's district.

A real test of Mr. Thompson's environmental credentials would be: is he willing to close down his vineyard and winery friends in his own district by no longer allowing them to suck water out of the rivers and aquifers? Ask the environmentalists who live on rivers like the Navarro about how much water is left for the Salmon once vineyards finish taking their sips. Ask environmentalists in Napa County about pesticides in ground water and runoff.

More Data:
Mike Thompson Watch Main Page

Mike Thompson is the current elected member of the United States House of Representatives for California's 1st Congressional District.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Catholicism Uber Alles

The Pope announced today that non-Catholic variations on Christianity are inferior to Catholicism. Leaders of other Christian sects announced they were shocked and also announced that they had the only true version of Christianity and that all other Christian sects are inferior.

Well, it may be a small step backwards towards intollerance, but Pope Benedict's current position is still very liberal compared to the Catholic Church of, say, 1400 which declared any deviation at all to be a form of atheism and devil worship. Back then the Inquisition made a sincere effort to torture people back to the True Faith and only burned you at the stake if you failed to confess your sins and kiss the Pope's feet.

Pope Benedict XVI (that's number 16, for you Latin feebs), formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ("The Rat"), was a member of the Hitler Youth when he was a child. He claims he did not really like Adolf Hitler even back then. So that is a bit of a fib. We know what happened to all of Hitler's opponents. They were killed. So Pope Benedict XVI was a get-along, go-along type of kid back then. Only as he grew powerful did he feel that he should bend other people to his will.

Hitler was Catholic. Most American's don't know that. Neither the American govenment nor the American Catholic Church wanted Americans to know that. Hitler was born Catholic and Hitler died Catholic. Most of the early Nazis, in Bavaria, were Catholic, though it was not a requirement for joining the party.

Of course Hitler was a bad Catholic. He did not give primacy to the Church. If he had been a good Catholic he would have given Jews the option of converting to Catholicism rather than being roasted. If he had been a good Catholic he would have made Catholicism the sole religion of Germany. If you look at history, that is where most Catholic nations come from. At some point some ruler made everyone convert to Catholicism, and killed those that resisted. That is how Mexico and Latin America became Catholic. In the 1930s Hitler's fellow Catholic, General Franco, killed people in Spain for not being Catholic. This is why Franco is considered to be a Good Catholic, but Hitler was a Bad Catholic.

Catholicism Uber Alles is the new keynote of the Catholic Church. The only reason to tolerate non-Catholics is to get them to knuckle under and pay their union dues to the Pope. I am sure Ratzinger wishes he had an army, like the Pope's did until a couple of centuries ago, to further what he now must try to accomplish by diplomacy.

More data:

Vatican propaganda site
The Vatican Rag

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Independence and the 200 Year Hangover

The first independence day was July 4th, 1776. The Declaration of Independence, written by committee but attributed with some cause to Thomas Jefferson, was meant to explain to the world why the gentlemen assembled in Philadelphia did not want to be ruled by Great Britain.

The Declaration carefully skirted at least two of the main reasons that select group of mostly rich men were so eager to split up with England. Before examining them in detail let me say clearly: I believe in democracy. I believe that the U.S. colonies of England should have become independent. I just believe that much bad policy was packaged up in the independence deal.

The idea of independent colonies, bound together or not, was not new in 1776. It had had advocates for decades. But interestingly, until 1772, agitation for independence had gotten nowhere. Why did things change in 1772? Because of a court case in Great Britain.

A slave of African descent from Virginia, named Somerset (or Sommerset or Somersett; spelling was no exact science in those days) had run away from his master, who had taken him to be his servant in London. After lengthy procedings a British judge, Lord Mansfield, declared Somerset to be free. He declared that slavery did not exist in England; that English soil was free soil; that whatever you prior status, when you stepped on English soil you became free. [See Slave Nation by Alffred and Ruth Blumrosen].

This decision, which Ben Franklin wrote about, endangered the livelihoods and thus the liberty of slave owners in Virginia and other U.S. colonies. Thomas Jefferson and other slavers formed the now famous Committees of Correspondence, linking up with certain New England merchants who were also keen on independence. They did not demand representation in Parliament, for that would have made it even clearer that American soil was English soil and that the slaves would have to be freed. Instead they moved the country steadily and inexorably towards independence and their own liberty to continue to own slaves. The American Revolution was underway.

Another thing that was bothering a great number of wealthy (and some not so wealthy) Americans, and here George Washington is the perfect example, was something called the Line of 1763. Most wealth in America was accumulated by land speculation; native American Indian land had to be seized for this game to continue. But the British Crown had negotiated with various Indian tribes for peace and guaranteed that no land would be stolen beyond this line of 1763. State legislatures, being even more corrupt back then than they are now, had granted certain individuals vast lands that lay past the line. Washington belonged to such an investment group. To make the claims good the land speculators had to convince king and Parliament to forget about the treaties and line. The king and Parliament did not want the expense of another Indian war, so they protected the Indians from the colonists.

The two-hundred year hangover came not from independence itself, but from the institution of slavery and greed for other people's land. During the American Revolution the British freed American slaves (funny how we know about the Emancipation Proclamation, but not the earlier granting of freedom), but the freed slaves were handed back to their owners, including Washington and Jefferson, when England lost the war.

The treaty ending the war also ceded lands beyond the 1763 line to the the United States. The fact that these lands belonged to Indian nations was immediately forgotten. The grabbing did not even stop at the Pacific Ocean; the government of the greedy, by the greedy, for the greedy eventually grabbed Hawaii and the Philippines.

For the most part the Native Americans were simply exterminated, but the African slaves became an internal problem, such were there numbers. The Dred Scott decision held the opposite of the Somerset case: in the U.S. you remained a slave even if you lived on the soil of a state that had abolished slavery. In theory slavery was abolished after the Civil War, but the Democratic Party (the party of slavery and the Confederacy) enacted Jim Crow (segregation) laws in the states it controlled that lasted until the 1970's.

Now we celebrate Independence Day (the Fourth of July) in an era of global interdependence. Green house gas emissions in the United States caused global warming that expands deserts in China; plastics manufactured in China accumulate their toxic burden in America's landfills.

Independence Day should be a day for somber reflection and for resolutions to do better. The hangover from today's foolishness looks like it will last much longer than a mere 200 years.

More data:

Line of 1763
Declaration of Independence
Somerset case