Archive for June, 2010

My Name Is Luka

It is common for those groping for reasons to justify Operation Enduring Fiefdom to invoke the subjugation of women. Without the American presence in Afghanistan, so goes the argument, Afghan women would suffer.

Problem is, those women are suffering now. While the Taliban and their associates are indeed veritable knuckledraggers in their attitudes toward women, so too are the men who today govern Afghanistan . . . with American support.

On June 29 BBC Newsnight broadcast Lyse Doucet’s film on Badam Bagh, a prison for women in Kabul. There, hundreds of Afghan women have been jailed because of their “bad character”—for “moral crimes.”

Here, briefly, is the story of one such woman, Sabera, who is sixteen years old.

“I was about to get engaged, and the boy came to ask me himself, before sending his parents. A lady in our neighbourhood saw us, and called the police,” she explains.

She was sentenced to three years but, in an act of mercy, it was shortened to 18 months.

Even the director of the prison, Zarafshana, acknowledges that “[i]f these women were treated with justice, I don’t think fifty percent of them would be in here. They are here because of problems in the family or personal vendettas.”

Many of these women have been interned because they fled their homes to escape physical violence inflicted by their husbands or male blood relatives. In today’s Afghanistan, it is a crime, apparently, to do anything other than just stay home, and take it.

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Not Helping

Sometimes people who want to help, actually hurt.

Throughout the 1970s, international donors provided funds for the sinking of ten million shallow hand-pump wells across the nation of Bangladesh. The idea was to provide people with clean drinking water, and so reduce the number of people felled each year by waterborne pathogens like cholera.

Three decades on, it develops that these wells are responsible for what the World Health Organization is calling “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.” For the wells tapped into arsenic deposits, releasing the odorless, colorless, and tasteless toxin into water used for drinking and cooking. It is now estimated that between 35 and 77 million people in Bangladesh have been chronically exposed to arsenic-contaminated water.

“The magnitude of the arsenic problem is 50 times worse than Chernobyl,” said Richard Wilson, president of the nonprofit Arsenic Foundation[.] “But it doesn’t have 50 times the attention paid to it.”

When the wells were sunk, neither the ground nor the water were tested for arsenic. New wells continue to be dug, still without testing for arsenic.

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Farewell To Arms

General Stanley McChrystal, recently “resigned” by President Barack Obama as commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has told the Army that he will retire.

I am not fond of generals, in general. “A general’s reputation,” as Kenneth Patchen observed, “is built on corpses.” In a world where Mr. Ha-Ha gleefully devises so many ways to inflict death and suffering, I am not much in favor of people who elect to pursue deliberately taking life as a career.

In any event, and as I recently noted here, since the US is at peace with its neighbors, Canada and Mexico, there is no reason at all at present for an army, at least in the sort of America envisioned by the Founders, who did not believe in a standing army. No army: no need for generals.

McChrystal in particular, though, I will not miss. He was a “darksider” during the George II years, when he served as ramrod for various unsavory “direct action” and “special mission” units. His behavior during the Pat Tillman outrage—in which McChrystal signed off on a medal citation he knew dripped lies, then worked back-channels to try to convince shameless BushCo politicos not to publicly cite to the lies he’d signed—was reminiscent of director Steven Spielberg’s craven response to the decision by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to award on honorary Oscar to ratfink Elia Kazan, who in the 1950s assisted the McCarthyoid witchfinder generals by denouncing before HUAC people like Lee Strasburg, Lillian Hellman, and John Garfield. As Kazan shuffled on stage to accept his tainted Oscar, people who didn’t care stood and applauded. People who did—Good People, like Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, that crew—stayed in their seats, sat on their hands. Spielberg stayed in his seat, but applauded. Soiled himself both ways.

Last fall McChrystal, displaying the sort of contempt for civilian authority that would eventually get him removed, ridiculed in public Vice President Joe Biden’s recommendations on American policy in Afghanistan, and indicated he would refuse to support it. The recent arrogant, locker-room, cocky-commando comments of McChrystal and his aides in the Rolling Stone piece by Michael Hastings affirmed that the man hadn’t changed, wouldn’t honor his oath, the American system of government. He had to go.

To send him on his way, a little clip from White Christmas, of Bing Crosby performing what at least one snide film critic has cruelly condemned as “Irving Berlin’s worst song”—”What Can You Do With A General?” Back in those days, retired generals did not immediately strip off the uniform and then proceed to careen around the television set knocking those they had formerly served. Maybe McChrystal can resist that temptation. Maybe.

The presentation in this video is amateurish, charmingly so. Halfway appropriate. As, in the end, McChrystal revealed himself to be something of an amateur. Though not a charming one.

Going Home

Mohamed Mohamed Hassan Odaini, the young Yemeni man who has been a War on Terra prisoner for eight years—more than a quarter of his life—is apparently at last going home.

As recently set forth here, Federal District Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy, in ruling on Odaini’s petition on habeas corpus, found that there was “no evidence” Odaini “has any connection to Al Qaeda,” that “holding Odaini in custody at such great cost to him has done nothing to make the United States more secure,” and “emphatically” ordered him released “forthwith.”

Judge Kennedy allowed the Justice Department until June 25 to appeal his decision. The Justice Department apparently did not do so. On June 26, anonymous “administration officials” told the Washington Post that the government would not contest Judge Kennedy’s order, and that Odaini would be repatriated to Yemen.

As Kennedy’s opinion made clear, government officials first concluded in June of 2002, eight years ago this month, that Odaini was innocent. He has several times before been cleared for release, but that release has never come. Most recently, the Obama Justice Department, as part of its review of the status of all War on Terra prisoners bequeathed it by the George II administration, determined in June of last year that Odaini should be freed. However, following the sadsack “attack” of Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the so-called “Christmas underwear bomber”—who had trained in a Badness Camp in Yemen—the Obama administration allowed itself to be bested by bedwetters in Congress and the media, and suspended the return of any War on Terra prisoners to Yemen.

“The general suspension is still intact, but this is a court-ordered release,” an unnamed administration official told the newspaper on condition of anonymity.

[A]nother administration official warned that the move “should not be viewed as a reflection of a broader policy for other Yemeni detainees.”

There remain 90 Yemeni prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay gulag. Before it imposed the bedwetting ban, the Obama administration had cleared 29 Yemenis to return home, and “conditionally cleared” an additional 30. One administration official told the Post that the courts may order up to 20 other Yemenis released, due to “insufficient evidence” in their cases. The official did not explain why, if the evidence in their cases was insufficient, prosecutors in the Justice Department did not dismiss those cases, as is their duty and obligation, under the United States Constitution, more than 800 years of Anglo-American jurisprudence, and the dictates of simple human decency.

The Arc

Fear, I repeat it, is at the bottom of all intolerance.

No matter what form or shape a persecution may take, it is caused by fear and its very vehemence is indicative of the degree of anguish experienced by those who erect the gallows or throw logs upon the funeral pyre.

Once we recognize this fact, the solution of the difficulty immediately presents itself.

Man, when not under the influence of fear, is strongly inclined to be righteous and just.

Thus far he has had very few opportunities to practice these two virtues.

But I cannot for the life of me see that this matters overmuch. It is part of the necessary development of the human race. And that race is young, hopelessly, almost ridiculously young. To ask that a certain form of mammal, which began its independent career only a few thousand years ago should already have acquired those virtues which go only with age and experience, seems both unreasonable and unfair.

And furthermore, it warps our point of view.

It causes us to be irritated when we should be patient.

It makes us say harsh things where we should only feel pity.

The day will come when tolerance shall be the rule, when intolerance shall be a myth like the slaughter of innocent captives, the burning of widows, the blind worship of a printed page.

It may take ten thousand years, it may take a hundred thousand.

But it will come, and it will follow close upon the first true victory of which history shall have any record, the triumph of man over his own fear.

—Hendrik Van Loon, Tolerance

The Dance

An Australian fertility researcher has discovered that the relationship between sperm and the female body is more complicated than previously imagined.

University of Adelaide professor Sarah Robertson says that her research has determined that sperm contain “signaling molecules” that activate immunity changes in a woman so that her body will accept it.

However, some apparently robust sperm fail to activate these changes, indicating that the female body can be “choosy,” and “needs convincing,” before it will allow just any old randy sperm into the egg.

Professor Robertson, who is a fertility specialist and leading a research project that examines the actions of the sperm in the cervix after sexual intercourse, says the male body provides data that heightens the chances of conception and progression to pregnancy.

The research shows that the female body on the other hand has a quality control mechanism that needs to accept compatibility with the sperm and also does an assessment on whether the conditions are as they should be for reproduction.

Some sperm, it seems, “fail to communicate,” are “unable to strike a chord.” Couples who are having difficulty achieving pregnancy may be suffering from “a communication gap between two fertility systems.” If the female is “not persuaded,” it ain’t happening.

Says Robertson:

“The male provides information that increases the chances of conception and progression to pregnancy, but the female body has a quality control system which needs convincing that his sperm is compatible.

“It’s rather like a two-way dance.”

When The Child Was A Child

One of the reasons I developed an almost instant aversion to Star Trek: The Next Generation was the presence of Wesley Crusher on the bridge. This seemed to be a clumsy, transparent attempt to attract younger viewers: in Reality—even in a sci-fi series—there would be no way some kid would be up there helping to run things, even if the ship’s captain did occasionally join loins with his mother.

At least the kid in Lost in Space, groused I, was not portrayed as some sort of super-genius; he was instead, well, a kid . . . as well as the oblivious focus of the often deeply strange attentions of a robot and a “doctor.”

Problem is, in my cynical Wesley-sneering, I was failing to allow for the fact that sometimes young people do know a thing or two. It’s good to get one’s crusted perceptions knocked around a bit, so it was well this week that I came across this piece about a group of seventh-graders who found a cave on Mars.

Sixteen students in a junior-high science class in Cottonwood, California were able through the Mars Student Imaging Program “to frame a research question and then commission a Mars-orbiting camera to take an image to answer their question.” When they scrutinized what they got back, they noticed what is apparently known in the Mars trade as a “Martian skylight”—a hole in the roof of a cave.

These students had discovered a cave. On another planet.

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When I Worked

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