31 January 2009

Turkish PM Calls Gaza What It Was : 'Killing'

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seen during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009. Photo: AP Photo/Michel Euler.

See video of Erdogan's remarks below.

Turkish PM greeted by cheers after Israel debate clash
By Robert Tait / 30 January 2009

Recep Tayyip Erdogan argued with Israeli president over Gaza offensive, before storming out

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, arrived home to a tumultuous reception of cheering crowds early today after storming out of a debate in Davos over Israel's recent offensive in Gaza.

Hours after clashing with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, in angry scenes at the normally sedate world economic forum, he was welcomed at Istanbul's Ataturk airport by thousands of supporters waving Turkish and Palestinian flags and chanting "Turkey is proud of you". Sympathisers also left bouquets of flowers at his official residence.

The outpouring of support displayed the domestic political capital Erdogan gained from his performance at the Swiss resort, where he told Peres: "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill." He then walked off the stage, declaring that he would never return to Davos, after claiming he had not been allowed to speak by the debate moderator, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.

Erdogan also accused Peres of raising his voice and claimed the Israeli statesman had been allowed more speaking time than himself and the panel discussion's two other participants, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, and Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League.

Peres had earlier made an impassioned defence of Israeli actions in Gaza, asking Erdogan: "What would you do if you were to have in Istanbul every night a hundred rockets?" Erdogan responded by saying: "President Peres, you are older than me and your voice is very loud. The reason for you raising your voice is the psychology of guilt … I know very well how you hit and killed children on the beaches."

The prime minister's wife, Emine – who this month organised a Women For Peace In Palestine lunch for the wives of Islamic dignitaries – also became involved, bursting into tears after telling reporters that "everything Peres said was a lie".

Erdogan's outburst was his most high-profile in a series of outspoken attacks on Israel's Gaza operations. He had previously called the offensive – in which around 1,300 Palestinians died – a "crime against humanity" and demanded Israel's expulsion from the UN.

His stance has shocked Israeli officials — used to considering Turkey as their closest regional ally — but played to the pro-Palestinian sentiments of the overwhelmingly Muslim Turkish public. Mass demonstrations in favour of Hamas have been staged in Istanbul and other cities.

Such sympathies have prompted suggestions that Erdogan's rhetoric has been mainly for domestic political consumption and aimed at wooing voters at forthcoming municipal elections in March. Jewish groups have also voiced fears that the government's fierce anti-Israeli criticism is fuelling antisemitism The row with Peres overshadowed a dispute between the government and the International Montetary Fund that had seen Erdgoan accuse the fund of setting unacceptable conditions, after negotiations were suspended over a proposed loan to help Turkey weather the economic recession.

On arriving at Ataturk airport, he depicted his Davos walk-out in nationalist terms, telling journalists: "This was a matter of the esteem and prestige of my country. I could not have allowed anyone to poison the prestige and in particular the honour of my country."

He also denied his comments were aimed at the Israeli people or Jews in general. A world economic forum spokesman said Peres spoke with Erdogan on the phone after the debate and expressed his respect for Turkey.

However, some observers believe Erdogan has sacrificed Turkish foreign policy, especially Turkey's self-appointed role as a regional mediator.

Before the Gaza hostilities Turkey had been mediating in negotiations between Israel and Syria. There are also fears that the pro-Israel lobby in the US will back moves to recognise the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman forces in the first world war as genocide, a move Turkey vehemently opposes.

video

Turkish prime minister in angry clash with Israeli president Shimon Peres over 'very wrong' offensive against Palestinian territory


Source / The Guardian

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Loving's Take on the Wall Street Bailouts



Cartoon by Charlie Loving / The Rag Blog

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Iraq Elections May Change the Political Landscape

ON ALERT: An Iraqi soldier checks security at a polling station in the southern city of Basra. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images.

Iraq elections: Security tight for provincial vote
By Tina Susman / January 31, 2009

There is a curfew on cars in cities, and Baghdad's airport is shut as officials prepare for Saturday's vote, which many hope will redress sectarian grievances by giving Sunni Arabs seats on councils.

Reporting from Baghdad -- In elections expected to significantly alter the country's political equation, Iraqis today began choosing new provincial councils to replace the current ones, blamed for fueling years of sectarian strife.

Late Friday, vehicular curfews took effect in cities, Baghdad's airport was closed and borders were sealed, signs of security concerns that remain high despite a major drop in violence in recent months. Polling stations were ringed with razor wire and under 24-hour police guard. At one site, police Lt. Dhia Khadim bragged that voters had to undergo six searches before casting their ballots.

"It's essential," Khadim said as a rooster crowed nearby and wind sent dust swirling about the courtyard of the school serving as polling place.

Saad Hassan was the first in line to vote at a polling station in east Baghdad's Sadr City, the Shiite stronghold of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr. He woke up at 6 a.m., prayed, and brought his family with him, walking in the dim and dusty light of the early morning through an area that less than a year ago was engulfed in fighting between Shiite militiamen and U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

"We are sick of the religious figures, which brought only chaos to our country," Hassan said after voting for a secular party.

Koudir Oudah Kahdum voted at the same station, but for the Islamic Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. As with many Iraqis, memories of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship swayed his decision. "It was Maliki who implemented his execution," Kahdum said, referring to Hussein's hanging in 2006. Maliki "is a brave man and our hero," he said. "He deserves that we vote for him again and again."

At stake are 440 seats on 14 provincial councils, the equivalent of U.S. state legislatures.

The current councils are dominated by Shiites and ethnic Kurds, even in areas where Sunni Arabs dominate, a result of a boycott of the 2005 elections by Sunni Arab parties. The lopsided councils and Sunnis' lack of power served to exacerbate sectarian and ethnic tensions that had boiled over into violence and have continued to hinder political progress.

The elections are seen as a barometer of Iraq's ability to remain relatively calm as U.S. military forces scale back their presence. A smooth process could also boost President Obama's desire to accelerate the U.S. troop withdrawal, something he has said he wants to achieve within 16 months. That places U.S. military commanders in Iraq in a delicate situation. They are eager to highlight Iraq's improved security and point to the elections as a milestone, but they also warn against a hasty withdrawal of the 140,000 American troops here.

"I think over-focus on a single event is always dangerous, be it positive or negative," said Army Brig. Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, one of the top U.S. commanders in Iraq, speaking of the elections as a measure of Iraq's future stability.

"Iraq is on a journey. It's on a journey toward sovereign nationhood," he said, noting that with nearly 14,500 candidates vying for council seats, most would lose. "That's a lot of disappointed people, like about 14,000 of them."

U.N. Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura said he was confident that there would not be a return to violence as occurred after the 2005 elections, because this time Sunni Arab parties are taking part. In addition, he said, Iraq has overcome what he called the Samarra syndrome -- the eruption of sectarian violence after a major attack, such as the 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. The attack led to a steep rise in Shiite-Sunni violence that displaced hundreds of thousands of people and left the capital carved into sectarian-based neighborhoods.

For that reason, Abu Walid Jabouri said Friday, he did not trust any of the more than 300 parties in the fray to overcome the perils of sectarianism.

"I will go to the poll, but I will not write anything. I will just draw a line across the ballot," said Jabouri, out for an afternoon stroll with his wife and young daughter.

In 2005, Mohammed Hussein supported the Iraqi National Accord, a secular party headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. With security his main concern now, Hussein wasn't sure which way to vote. He planned to decide at the last minute, at the booth.

"We want whoever rules us to be secular, but we also want security," he said, acknowledging that Maliki had impressed him with his crackdown on Shiite militias.

Maliki is hoping the crackdown will help seal a Dawa victory in Baghdad and the southern provinces, where the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council holds sway. Strong showings would help Maliki consolidate power across the country before national elections this year that will determine whether he remains prime minister.

[Times staff writers Ned Parker in Najaf and Monte Morin in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Baghdad contributed to this report.]

Source / Los Angeles Times

H/t Juan Cole / The Rag Blog

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So Far: Obama Has Defied the Odds On Palestine

Palestinian Presidident Mahmoud Abbas: Obama called him first. Photo by Mohammed Omer / Rafah Today.

Obama and the Oddsmakers:

'Obama -- to offer yet again one of my favorite quotes from Lenin -- has to become as radical as reality itself.'

By Alexander Cockburn / January 31, 2009

A betting man, the morning after Obama’s inauguration, would surely have found odds-on stakes that the new president’s first daring cavalry charge would be an assault on the economic crisis, worsening day by day. Our Wednesday-morning gambler would have found much longer odds being offered on any surprising moves in that graveyard of presidential initiatives sign-posted “Israel-Palestine.

[....] In his inaugural speech Obama proclaimed that “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers.” Muslims were ahead of Jews in that line, which caused some eyebrows to twitch. The next morning, in his opening round of phone calls to Middle Eastern leaders Obama placed the first call to Mahmoud Abbas, and only the next to Olmert. Uri Avnery pointed out on this site that Ha’aretz twice adjusted reality, reporting wrongly that Olmert was first in line. Hardly had Obama settled in before he appointed a fellow Democrat and former US Senator, George Mitchell, as his peace broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Mitchell’s mother came to America from Lebanon at the age of 18, and Mitchell's father, orphaned from his Irish father, was brought up in a Maronite Christian Lebanese family.

Then Obama gave his first formal tv interview to the Dubai-based cable station Al Arabiya, where he remarked at the outset that “I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state -- I'm not going to put a time frame on it -- that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people…” Contiguous? You can read that a number of ways, bad and good, including the possibility that Obama is obliquely criticizing Israel’s strategy of corralling Palestinians into mini-Bantustans on the West Bank, divided by military roads, walls and Jewish settlements.

As Avnery, whose biography stretches back to Israel’s earliest days, remarked, “These are not good tidings for the Israeli leaders. For the last 42 years, they have pursued a policy of expansion, occupation and settlements in close cooperation with Washington. They have relied on unlimited American support, from the massive supply of money and arms to the use of the veto in the Security Council. This support was essential to their policy. This support may now be reaching its limits.”

As buttress for Avnery’s claim that US “support may be reaching its limits," we can instance a report on CBS’ “60 Minutes," the most widely watched news show on US television. CBS’ reporter Bob Simon’s filmed report of the arrogance and brutality of Israelli soldiers and settlers was, at least in the memory of your CounterPunch editors, the single most savage indictment of Israel ever broadcast on U.S. network television (which of course has avoided any such indictments like the plague). At one point Simon’s crew got footage of a Palestinian home in Nablus, seized by the IDF, for use as as a lookout post. They kicked the family downstairs, while the Israeli soldiers took over the kids’ bedrooms. When the kids came home from school, they couldn’t get into the house. The piece also featured a fanatical settler leader, Daniella Weiss, pledging that never again will any settlement be dismantled by the IDF.

Simon concluded this fierce report as follows: "Demographers predict that, within ten years, Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Without a separate Palestinian state, the Israelis would have three options. They could try ethnic cleansing, drive the Palestinians out of the West Bank. They could give Palestinians the vote. That would be the democratic option, but it would mean the end of the Jewish state. Or they could try apartheid, have the minority Israelis rule the majority Palestinians. But apartheid regimes don't have a very long life."
Newsweek’s current edition has a story titled: "Israel Has Fewer Friends than Ever." Huge numbers of people here can tune into Jon Stewart’s Daily Show or go on line and visit sites such as CounterPunch [and The Rag Blog] and get fierce reporting on Israel’s monstrous conduct.

So the media context has changed, and this change has to be factored in to overall assessments of what is possible politically. Of course the range of options entertained in Washington and in the tottering official media remains mostly, and obdurately, tilted to Israeli rejectionism. There are endless instances, cited recently on this site in the interview of Noam Chomsky by Afshin Rattansi of Press TV and by Norman Finkelstein, of Israel’s successful sabotage of peace initiatives, decade after decade.

Obama may well be smarting from the criticism across the world he incurred from keeping his mouth shut about Israel’s bloody rampages in Gaza. The furious public letter denouncing US-Israeli conduct from Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States and former intelligence chief probably also prompted Obama to “reach out”, as they say, to the Arab world – particularly since the US needs all the customers for its Treasury bonds that it can get.

So far the Israel lobby here has held its peace. The Jewish Forward newspaper, a useful bellwether, has editorialized positively about Obama’s moves.
“But time is running out. Most Israelis know that if Israel doesn’t reach a peace agreement and leave the West Bank very soon, it will find in another decade that it is no longer a Jewish democracy. Israel’s pro-Western Arab neighbors, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, fear that if Israel and the Palestinians don’t settle their differences soon, then anger on the Arab street will boil over and force those moderates to abandon the peace option.

“Total victory is no longer an option, if it ever was. This is a time to put war aside and give diplomacy a chance. Friends of Israel, those who care about Israel’s future, need to cast off their doubts and give full-throated support to George Mitchell.”
But the minute Mitchell comes up with a concrete proposal discomfiting to Israel and to its likely new leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, then the atmosphere could become sulphurous with blinding speed. That will be the testing time for Obama and a true test of leadership and hard-nosed cunning. If he is going to get anywhere constructive, his position has to evolve beyond ongoing efforts to write Hamas out of the picture and stick with the utterly discredited Abbas. That will be Mitchell’s hardest negotiating job, reconciling his president with the facts on the ground.

In other words, Obama – to offer yet again one of my favorite quotes from Lenin - has to become as radical as reality itself. The economy, if not the Middle East, may force him willy-nilly in that direction. It will take further disasters to force Obama and his economic advisors to kick the corpse of the present banking mess into the grave and push towards the creation of a rational system under public control. It will take resources of political cunning and courage that Obama has yet to evince, for him to shape US policy towards Israel/Palestine in a positive direction.

A prudent bettor would still have to wager that Obama simply won’t want to spend that kind of political capital. But a prudent bettor wouldn’t have predicted the moves he’s made so far.

Source / CounterPunch

Thanks to David Hamilton / The Rag Blog

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Medical Mistakes Kill 100,000 Per Year in the US


See related John Rockefeller Op-ed below.

Health Care in America
By Janet Gilles / The Rag Blog / January 31, 2009

In this video, Tom Daschle analyzes our health care system, not the best in the world. In the US, medical mistakes kill the equivalent of a 747 crashing every other day, but no agency is looking into this. One-hundred thousand die annually from medical mistakes, yet we don’t have a board looking into why.

All the other countries start at the bottom of the health pyramid, maintaining wellness, and then work their way up to the top, expensive interventions, until the money runs out.

In the US, we spend the money at the top on expensive procedures and don’t do the cheap stuff that will get us a lot more bang for the buck.

"I would call it a myth that we have the best healthcare system in the world," says Daschle.

Source / FORA TV


And there's this related editorial:
Final piece in our economic collapse
By John Rockefeller / January 31, 2009

Letting the health care market segment wither by lack of public support will do no one any good.

Having campaigned on a broadly sketched platform of hope for those on the fringes of economic and physical viability, President Obama is watching the ticker line expand to the point where half of the U.S. population considers itself either underemployed or underserved.

An expanding percentage of this group – 43.6 million by the Centers for Disease Control's 2006 pre-recession count – are without health care.

This number has certainly burgeoned well beyond the 50 million mark given the fresh round of layoffs, financial failures and re-budgeting by the recently unemployed.

My concern, and the concern of many, surrounds the disappearance of Obama's commitment to health care provision for the uninsured and underserved members of our population.

We are about to ignore our single functional economic engine – that of the health care sector – by prioritizing long-dead sectors of finance and auto manufacturing.

FACING A FISCAL TROUGH

If we fail to rescue health care and public health itself as we move forward, we will be entering a fiscal trough that may take decades to rebuild.

Now would be the perfect time to pick the sector with most viability to fuel our recovery. Later will be far too late.

As we pour countless, and lightly accounted for, billions into bailouts and tax cuts for those having sufficient income to avail themselves of such stimulus measures, we are leaving an ever larger proportion of our country behind, and in the most dire state of need.

Health has been largely commoditized and subjected to profit-focused market efficiencies for the past quarter century, leaving more and more Americans behind in the eternal rush to the margin.

As this process unfolded, and despite the loss of millions on the health care coverage rolls, there were ample dollars to ensure the profitability of health as a commodity.

This will not be the case moving into the near and distant future. Health care is, like so much else, heading into its own meltdown, and it will make the financial collapse of 2008 look like a mere blip on the Bloomberg screen.

With the U.S. economy claiming more and more members of the middle class for transition toward the poverty line, we are about to enter a period in our history defined by a statistical majority in the U.S. population having little or no access to health care – at a time when health care is acting as one of the few profit-making sectors in our economy.

With a spiking unemployment rate in the health care sector and a dilapidated pharmaceutical industry that continues its merger mentality to control costs no longer borne by a viable financial sector, we are heading into an uncharted abyss of social disaster.

TURN THE TIDE AROUND

The only way to stem the tide on this decline – and its accompanying fiscal and public health consequences – is to fund health care as the fiscal engine it has recently become amidst the financial sector collapse.

Had the health care sector been given half of the recent financial and auto manufacturing bailout funding, we would have been able to expand and extend health care coverage.

We would thereby be capturing the remaining stability of this sector as an engine of economic and public health recovery.

It surprises me that the economists and health care consultants working in the Obama administration have not taken this opportunity to the bank.

They could have made a difference by diverting meaningless cash dumps from non-functional industries into the single most viable and necessary industry in the country.

I am sad to say that the crash of the health care economy will be heard in a very different way than the crashes that recently preceded it.

It will take our final breath economically, and literally with the disappearance of greatly diminished health care services to all economic classes in the United States.

Copyright 2009 by The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

[John Rockefeller of Camden is CEO of a management consulting firm, Zero Consult Ltd., based in Boston.]

Source / Portland Press Herald

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Texas and the Killing Chamber

'At the execution facility in Texas, there is seating for people who have come to take their satisfaction from seeing an act of death.'
By Greg Moses / The Rag Blog / January 31, 2009

I don't know much about death. I've seen very little of it up close, and I'd like to see less of it on TV. But I have this idea that the less death we cause each other, the better.

However, the death penalty seems to be based on another kind of idea. The world will be better, says the death penalty, if we all get together and make one death more.

At the execution facility in Texas, there is seating for people who have come to take their satisfaction from seeing an act of death.

I think I understand what satisfaction they are taking from the scene as they watch a person die who has killed one or two or three or more people. I think I understand what it must be like to live with a killed friend, daughter, or child while the killer lives. I think I understand the sense of how that state of things would seem absolutely unfair.

Why should any thief be allowed to keep what he has stolen? Has the killer not stolen life itself?

On another side of the killing chamber, Texas provides seats for the family and guests of the executee. Now it must be terrible enough to be told that your loved one has been killed. But to mark on your calendar a date and then travel to Huntsville and take a seat at some appointed time and watch? I have trouble seeing how that can seem like a fair thing to put somebody through.

At least three times recently in Texas, the people who watched the death act did not see a killer killed, because the executee was later discovered to be innocent. In those three cases, what would we call what the witnesses to death are going through today as they think about watching the killing of an innocent man?

We live in an age of pop probabilities. People who hate statistics most of the time can argue pretty quickly that the percentage of wrongful killings on death row is acceptable. It's like the way we average the news of collateral damage. In the effort to kill rightly we sometimes kill wrongly. Doesn't make right wrong, does it?

Last week in Texas they held two scheduled killings. One was filled with witnesses and a real, last-minute act. The executee accused one of the victims of at least two of the killings as the victims' families looked on.

The other execution was silent, apparently. Nobody came to watch. Nothing was said.

Will Texas next week be a better state thanks to last week's two killings? Have two thieves been forced to return what they had stolen?

There is no returning a stolen life.

[Greg Moses edits the Texas Civil Rights Review.]

The Rag Blog

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Boehner : Lighten Up Already


'Boehner is like a talking toy that repeats the same thing over and over when you pull its string.'

By Larry Ray / The Rag Blog / January 30, 2009

There is great speculation that GOP house minority leader John Boehner is getting progressively darker and darker because he spends so much time on his hidden Capitol office tanning bed. But others opine that his conservative rhetoric is getting so burned out he has become a walking, nay-saying human rotisserie.

Boehner is like a talking toy that repeats the same thing over and over when you pull its string. His string became more available for regular pulling after he campaigned to clean things up after the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal hastened Tom DeLay's departure. In spite of Boehner's own links to Abramoff, he became House Majority Leader in 2006. And he has used his higher profile position to oppose anything not ultraconservative ever since. Some typical examples:

  • Voted NO on regulating the subprime mortgage industry. (Nov 2007)
  • Voted YES on restricting bankruptcy rules. (Jan 2004)
  • Voted NO on tax incentives for energy production and conservation. (May 2008)
  • Voted YES on passage of the Bush Administration national energy policy. (Jun 2004)
  • Rated 0% by the Campaign for America's Future, indicating opposition to energy independence. (Dec 2006)
  • Voted NO on assisting workers who lose jobs due to globalization. (Oct 2007)
  • Voted NO on protecting whistleblowers from employer recrimination. (Mar 2007)
  • Voted YES on limited prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients. (Nov 2003)
And these examples are just a quick skim off the top of Boehner's "to hell with the average working American" vision for our nation. Now that he and his conservative cohorts have been forced to pull back from the private trough from which they have gorged themselves for the past eight years, Boehner still doesn't get it.

His strident opposition to "spending taxpayer dollars for a trillion dollar bailout" suggests he has no knowledge of the crippling recession and subsequent damage Japan suffered in the 1990's. Their conservative leaders opposed vigorous, massive and immediate governmental action after their spectacular market crash. Japan learned too late that conservative tight-fisted refusal to act aggressively and immediately with massive governmental cash infusions would lead to a grinding recession so severe that it would take more than a decade to recover.

Boehner represents a dwindling base of conservative Republicans now mostly concentrated in a block of Southern States. The Republican National Committee now clearly seeks to change and expand that base after an historic election of their own. The new RNC has just elected their first ever African American chairman. Michael Steele, after six grueling ballots, beat out top white contenders, including Katon Dawson, who even quit his whites-only country club membership for a shot at the position.

The RNC's first black chairman was elected though he was not even a RNC committee member, which almost never happens. The mood for change was so strong that Tennessee Republican Party Chairman, Chip Saltsman, the boob who mailed out the "Barack the Magic Negro" music CD's to fellow Republicans for Christmas, didn't even make the ballot.

So maybe Chairman Steele will have John Boehner in for a private sit-down real soon and a chat about a wider Republican vision for all of America that could actually allow true civil, bipartisan political discussion. And who knows, maybe Boehner will unplug his tanning bed and no longer think he has to be the darkest-skinned Republican mouthpiece. Chairman Steele is now the real deal.

[Retired journalist Larry Ray is a Texas native and former Austin television news anchor. He also posts at The iHandbill.]

The Rag Blog

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Foreclosed On? Congresswoman Says: Stay and Fight

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, wants those losing their homes to stay and fight. Photo by Rick Bowmer / AP.

'So I say to the American people, you be squatters in your own homes,' said Congresswoman Kaptur before the House of Representatives. 'Don't you leave.'

By David Edwards and Stephen C. Webster / January 30, 2009

If you're poor and the bank is coming for your home, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur has a plan for you.

Just squat, she says.

Yes, this Ohio Democrat is actually encouraging her financially distressed constituents whose homes have been foreclosed upon, to simply stay put.

In a Friday report, CNN's Drew Griffin explored the case of Ohioan Andrea Geiss, whose home was foreclosed upon in April.

"Behind in payments, out of work, a husband sick, she had nowhere to go," said Griffin. "So, she decided to follow the advice of her Congresswoman and go nowhere."

In Lucas County, Ohio, over 4,000 properties were foreclosed upon in 2008, reports CNN.

"So I say to the American people, you be squatters in your own homes," said Congresswoman Kaptur before the House of Representatives. "Don't you leave."

She's called on all of her foreclosed-upon constituents to stay in their homes and refuse to leave without "an attorney and a fight," said CNN.

"If they've had no legal representation of a high quality, I tell them stay in their homes," Kaptur told Griffin.

Kaptur is a high-profile advocate of an increasingly popular mode of fighting foreclosures best known for it's key phrase: "Produce the note."

By telling a bank to "produce the note," a homeowner can delay foreclosure by forcing the lender to prove the suing institution is actually the same which owns the debt.

"During the lending boom, most mortgages were flipped and sold to another lender or servicer or sliced up and sold to investors as securitized packages on Wall Street," explains the Consumer Warning Network. "In the rush to turn these over as fast as possible to make the most money, many of the new lenders did not get the proper paperwork to show they own the note and mortgage. This is the key to the produce the note strategy."

And Friday's segment on this growing foreclosure fighting "movement" was not the network's first. Earlier in January, CNN explored one person's strategy in demanding her bank "produce the note," only to find that the lender had "lost or destroyed" the evidence of debt ownership. Such a revelation can significantly strengthen a homeowner's position when asking to renegotiate a mortgage.

That these banks, many of which received billions of dollars in government bailout funds, continue to boot defaulted owners from their homes, makes them "vultures" says Kaptur.

"They prey on our property assets," she said. "I guess the reason I'm so adamant on this is because I know property law and its power to protect the individual homeowner. And I believe that 99.9 percent of our people have not had good legal representation in this."

Source / therawstory

Thanks to Karen Lee Wald / The Rag Blog

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30 January 2009

Hurricane Watch : Texas-Cuba Alliance?

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas, who will lead a delegation to Cuba, is shown with Shreveport, La. Mayor Cedric Glover, testifying on Capitol Hill Sept. 23, 2008, before a Senate hearing on disaster recovery. Photo by Jose Luis Magana / AP.

'Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas will lead a delegation of regional officials to Cuba to find out if Galveston could improve its hurricane response by emulating any part of the Cuban plan.'

By Leigh Jones / January 28, 2009

GALVESTON -- Hurricane Ike smacked the Caribbean island of Cuba twice before rolling on to Galveston.

Although seven Cubans died during the storm, 2.6 million people — 23 percent of the island’s population — evacuated out of harm’s way.

Just three days later, 40 percent of Galveston’s 57,000 residents prepared to weather Ike’s wrath in their homes.

Across Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, 20 people died during the storm.

Despite the national policy of silence toward the tiny communist nation, America’s coastal communities have something to learn from the Cubans, some say.

Later this year, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas will lead a delegation of regional officials to Cuba to find out if Galveston could improve its hurricane response by emulating any part of the Cuban plan.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for International Policy, which is organizing the trip, asked Thomas to join the delegation because Galveston and Cuba were twin victims of Ike, said Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the center and director of its Cuba program.

“We have our differences to be sure,” he said, alluding to the ongoing tensions between the United States and Cuba. “But both of us are in the path of these hurricanes that seem to be increasing in size, intensity and number. How can we cooperate? How can we better help one another in these circumstances?”

This year’s trip is the third in a series of meetings between Cuban and American officials the center has organized. In 2007, Cuban officials joined political leaders from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in Monterey, Mexico.

In 2008, the group made its first visit to Cuba to visit the country’s meteorological service and meet with medical response teams.

Thomas, who has never been to Cuba, said she was interested to see what Cuba’s hurricane experts had to say.

Cuba’s expertise in dealing with hurricanes dates back to around 1900, when the country established the first hurricane observation network.

The Cubans could have helped warn Galveston about the 1900 Storm, but three weeks before it made landfall, the federal government banned all meteorological information coming from the island.

Thomas and her fellow delegates will publish a report on their findings when they return to the United States.

Although the trip’s dates have not been finalized, it likely will take place in April, she said.

The trip is being funded by the The Atlantic Philanthropies, a New York-based organization that provides grants to groups that work with disadvantaged and vulnerable people.

Source / Galveston Daily News

Thanks to Karen Lee Wald / The Rag Blog

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Unions and the Left : A Million March in France Against Sarkozy

An anti-government demonstration in Bordeaux Jan. 29, 2009. Photo by Getty Images.

The US mainstream media did not even approach this kind of coverage. Of course the left-center European press -- like The Independent and Le Monde -- is much less subservient to the powers-that-be.

I sadly feel that we will never see anything akin to this in the USA. There IS a French tradition, dating back to 1793, of turning to the street and by and large, over the years, the French establishment has been much more tolerant and insightful. Furthermore, the European system of education and the secularist society give the average French Citizen better insight into affairs politic.

--Dr. Stephen R. Keister
/ The Rag Blog / January 30, 2009

French demonstrations: Sarkozy vs the street

More than a million people in a dozen French cities protest the government's handling of the economy.


By John Lichfield / January 30, 2009

PARIS -- In the biggest demonstrations seen in France for more than a decade, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets yesterday to protest against everything from the global economic crisis to President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to shrink the French state.

About 300,000 people – mostly representing the many tribes of a rejuvenated left-wing movement – marched raucously through the centre of Paris to demand higher wages, more job protection and greater government efforts to stop the country from tipping into a deep recession.

In a carnival atmosphere – one of political defiance, rather than deep popular anger – the trades union and left-wing sympathisers marched to a chanted refrain, in English, of "Yes, yes, yes, we can". This must be the first time that any left-wing French demonstration has invoked the absent spirit of an American president.

A 24-hour nationwide strike, mostly observed by public sector employees, was less effective than predicted but rail and bus services, airports, schools and postal services were disrupted, especially outside Paris.

More worryingly for M. Sarkozy, a poll found that 69 per cent of voters supported the protests – a figure which embraced not just the traditional left and centre, but a large number of right-wing respondents. The President may be further disturbed by the fact that yesterday's demonstrations were held before the recession has begun to bite savagely into the real economy. With France's manufacturing and luxury industries – from cars and aircraft to wine and leather goods – beginning to feel the squeeze, far deeper and angrier unrest may lie ahead.

About 1.5 million people in a dozen cities were said to have joined the rallies, which were called by the eight rival trade union federations. Union leaders said it was the largest social protest since a wave of demonstrations forced President Jacques Chirac to back down on state reforms in 1995.

The marches were the most powerful challenge so far to M. Sarkozy's authority. Police estimated the number of demonstrators in Paris at 65,000 but this was manifestly too low. A dense crowd more than a mile long blocked the Grands Boulevards in the east of the city centre, from the Bastille to La République and beyond, suggesting a turnout of at least 300,000.

The placards carried by marchers were anti-recession, anti-banker, anti-capitalist and anti-reform but most of all, anti-Sarkozy. The parade was led by people carrying an effigy of the President as a green-skinned vampire, with the slogan "Black Death" pinned on his back. Alongside him was an effigy of a donkey in a dunce's cap with the slogan "€36bn for the bankers and we get screwed". The protests, following similar unrest in Greece, the Baltic states and even Iceland, will be closely followed by other European governments. EU leaders have been concerned for weeks that popular anxiety about the recession – and anger and incomprehension at the scale of the banking bailouts – might spill over on to the streets.

Yesterday's rallies across France were mostly good-natured and almost jubilant. The left was delighted to find a unifying issue after 20 months of being outmanoeuvred and humiliated by M. Sarkozy. Leading figures in the Socialist and Communist parties ostentatiously joined the Paris march. The danger for M. Sarkozy, however, is that he so weakened the credibility of the moderate left that social protest will jump to the extremes. Yesterday's march was dotted with crude anti-capitalist images such as bankers in top hats, lighting cigars with €500 notes.

President Sarkozy has already unveiled a €26bn package to boost the economy, as well as special measures to shore up flagging sales of cars and aircraft. But even the most moderate union leaders say more must be done to boost people's declining incomes (something M. Sarkozy repeatedly promised voters in 2007).

Bernard Thibault, the head of the largest union federation, the CGT, said the marches were a "social event of the utmost importance, not just a passing shout of anger". He urged M. Sarkozy and his Prime Minister François Fillon to "re-examine their consciences" and reconsider the scale of their stimulus package. François Chérèque, of the moderate CFDT federation, called for "concrete measures for workers" – in other words pay rises.

M. Sarkozy remained deliberately and obstinately silent yesterday. Last year, he boasted that he had tamed the unions and that "when there is a strike in France, no one notices any more". It appears that he spoke too soon. He may take comfort from the fact that yesterday's strike was mostly observed by public-sector workers whose jobs are not directly threatened by recession. And he will note that the strikes were not as damaging as the unions had forecast: seven in 10 trains ran on the Paris Métro, while six in 10 high-speed TGV trains were operating normally.

Source / The Independent, U.K.

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Melting Arctic Ice Creates International Drilling Free For All

Melting ice will open up much of the Arctic to undersea excavation of natural resources.
'The United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and other interested parties are all attempting to claim jurisdiction over the opening Arctic territory... Increasingly lost in the race for Arctic hydrocarbons are the concerns of environmentalists.'
By Bruce Pannier / January 29, 2009

Many see the problem of global warming and the melting polar ice caps as a looming ecological disaster.

Others, however, see it as an opportunity -- a chance to gain access to lucrative energy deposits long hidden under layers of Arctic ice.

NATO officials meeting in Reykjavik -- including Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and John Craddock, the supreme allied commander in Europe -- say the race for the Arctic poses serious new security threats.

The United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and other interested parties are all attempting to claim jurisdiction over the opening Arctic territory. The Reykjavik meeting aims to discuss the possibility that disputes over shipping routes may turn into military conflicts.

Russia has already spent years jockeying for position.

Moscow asserts that it has the right to control an area equivalent to the size of France. As early as September 2008, President Dmitry Medvedev was calling for clear legislation on his country's activities in the Arctic.

"Our priority task is to turn the Arctic into Russia's resource base of the 21st century," Medvedev said. "In order to fulfill this task, we should first resolve a number of special issues. The main issue is to ensure and firmly defend Russia's national interests in that region."

Race For Undersea Resources

The Arctic has long been seen as a rich but inaccessible resource base. Energy experts estimate there may be as much as 25 percent of the world's oil and gas reserves lying beneath the Arctic seabed.

"The Arctic presents Russia with a range of interests, especially as an energy supplier. Even by preliminary estimates, the Arctic shelf is one of the biggest supplies [of energy resources] of oil and gas," says Dmitry Abzalov, an expert at the Center for Current Politics, a Moscow-based think tank.

Environmentalists worry about the effect of increased resource extraction."Besides that, we're talking about a number of other things. The Arctic is a vital military strategic area for the countries around the North Pole. Without a doubt, the development of this region is connected traditionally to the use of bioresources -- first and foremost the fishing industry," Abzalov tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "But of course, there's no less interest in its hydrocarbon wealth."

Medvedev's call to adopt a federal law on delineating the southern border of Russia's Arctic zone last autumn drew sharp reactions from other countries with a claim on Arctic territory.

Canada responded by threatening to impose stricter registration requirements for ships sailing in the Northwest Passage, the sea route crossing over the northern coast of North America.

The United States, Norway, and others have argued that any attempt by Russia to draw up its own Arctic borders would have no basis in international law.

Such concerns haven't stopped Russia from demonstrating an aggressive interest in the region. Russian strategic bombers have made a series of test flights across the Arctic toward Canada and the United States; submarine expeditions have been conducted at Moscow's behest to lay claim to gas and oil fields below the ocean floor.

Such moves have only sparked concerns that the race for the Arctic may quickly escalate into a multilateral military confrontation.

Disputed Geography

Maritime law is part of the problem. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea says any littoral state can lay claim to territory within 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) of its shoreline, and can develop any natural resources within that zone.

The law, however, also stipulates that that distance can expand to some 350 miles (648 kilometers) if the littoral state can provide scientific proof than an undersea continental plate is a natural extension of its territory.

Russia is now seeking to claim as its territory the Lomonosov Ridge -- an 1,800-kilometer-long section of the continental crust running from the New Siberian Islands to the Canadian Arctic islands.

Moscow says the Lomonosov Ridge is a natural extension of its continental plate, and has launched highly publicized expeditions to obtain the proof necessary to make a case before the United Nations that the territory is Russia's. (Canada and Denmark also claim the ridge is an extension of their territory.)

The UN has asked the Arctic states to submit their territorial claims for review by May 2009. But Abzalov of the Center for Current Politics says he does not believe the issue will create great difficulties between the five Arctic countries.

"Considering the battle for the Arctic started long ago, I wouldn't say that this would lead to any new confrontation," Abzalov says.

Increasingly lost in the race for Arctic hydrocarbons are the concerns of environmentalists. They worry that increased traffic and exploration in the Artic may do irreparable damage to the region's fragile biosphere.

[RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondents Irina Lagunina and Lubov Chizhova contributed to this report.]

Source / Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Thanks to truthout / The Rag Blog

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The Late Great Molly Ivins : What Would She Think?

Carlton Carl and Elna Christopher hug beside a portrait of Molly Ivins, during a memorial service for the late columnist and political sage, on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007, in Austin. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez / AP.

After Barack Obama's 2004 speech at the Democratic convention, Molly Ivins said, 'You know... that young man could be president some day.'

By Betsy Moon / January 30, 2009

AUSTIN -- The question I have been asked most often during the last two years is, "What would Molly think about this?" Molly Ivins would have loved this election. She would have loved the beautiful sight of "We the People" finally stepping up to become the real deciders. She would have loved the drama, the comedy and the characters.

We miss her regular twice-weekly comments and insights, and want to hear her dissect, slice and dice, and make fun of the events and revelations of the week. No one could do it like she did. She made us feel like we weren't alone. She made us want to be our better selves and stand up and use our power. She would be so proud that we finally woke up and worked to make this happen.

In many of her lectures, she would exhort her audience to believe in their power. She'd say: "I hear people whine: 'I can't do anything. I'm just one person.'" Then she'd lift her head high and quote from the Declaration of Independence in her Barbara Jordon voice and remind them, "as a U.S. citizen, you have more political power than most humans who've ever lived on this earth."

In fact, we know how she would have felt, because she was as prescient about this election before her death two years ago as she was about all the other tragedies of the Bush years. Carlton Carl, CEO/publisher at Molly's beloved Texas Observer, recalls her saying after Obama's 2004 speech at the Democratic convention, "You know ... that young man could be president some day."

Before Barack Obama announced his candidacy, Chicago Magazine asked a number of luminaries if they thought he should run. Opinions varied. Molly was succinct and direct, and with her usual wit and certainty said: "Yes, he should run. He's the only Democrat with any Elvis to him."

And, in her column on Jan. 20, 2006, she said: "It's about political courage and heroes, and when a country is desperate for leadership. There are times when regular politics will not do, and this is one of those times. There are times a country is so tired of bull that only the truth can provide relief. If no one in conventional-wisdom politics has the courage to speak up and say what needs to be said, then you go out and find some obscure junior senator ... with the guts to do it." She was speaking about Gene McCarthy then, but it might as well have been Barack Obama.

She'd be so happy that her beloved Constitution (she donated one speech a month to groups working to preserve and maintain the First Amendment) is in safer hands -- that some of the worst things ever done in our name are over. She'd love that Barack Obama began his community organizing knowing that power lies in all of us united, and that he continues to remind us that we are the deciders.

I saw and heard many interviews after Nov. 4 and during inaugural celebrations with people who all said they wished their mother or father or grandmother or friend had been here to witness this history in the making. Tens of thousands of us wished that Molly could have been here to see it.

I choose to believe she and all of them did see it because they live on in our hearts, minds and actions. Molly is honored with awards, lectures and scholarships in her name. Many of her readers formed "Pots & Pans" Brigades, following the advice in her final two columns to take to the streets and demand an end to the Iraq war. She always signed her books and her letters with, "Raise more hell," and you can make her live on by doing just that.

She lives in everyone who took courage in who they are and what they thought when they read her columns and books, and knew they weren't alone and they weren't crazy. She lives on in The Texas Observer and the ACLU, to whom she left a large portion of her estate.

In a letter for the ACLU, she says: "Every time someone down the line is irreverent about authority, I'll have my monument. Every time some kid who was born a nigger, a kike, a wop, a Polack, a gook, a gimp, a fag, or just a plain maverick lifts up her head and dares anyone to stop her, I'll have my monument. Every time they peaceably assemble to petition their government for redress of a grievance, I'll be there. Whenever they worship as they please (or not at all), I'll be there. Whenever they speak up and speak out and raise hell, I'll be there. And every time some blue-bellied, full-blooded nincompoop who holds elected office is called to the floor for deciding to keep us safe by rewriting the Constitution, or by suspending due process and holding a citizen indefinitely without legal representation, I'll be there. Now that is immortality. I don't have any children, so I've decided to claim all the future freedom-fighters and hell-raisers as my kin. I figure freedom and justice beat having my name in marble any day. Besides, if there is another life after this one, think how much we'll get to laugh watching it all."

Ken Bunting, an old friend of Molly's who's now associate publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, said of Molly on Election Day, "I'm not much of a believer, but I think our friend is looking down and smiling right along with Barack's grandma." You know, I think he is right.

]Betsy Moon was Molly Ivin's former assistant and "Chief of Stuff" from 2001 to 2006. This article was distributed by Creative Writers Syndicate, Inc.]

Source / CommonDreams

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Austin : Watch Out for Zombies

Austin road signs warn of zombies. Photo from KXAN.

Construction signs warn of zombies:
Hackers change public safety message.

By Shannon Wolfson / January 29, 2009
See Video below.
AUSTIN -- Austin drivers making their morning commute were in for a surprise when two road signs on a busy stretch of road were taken over by hackers. The signs near the intersection of Lamar and Martin Luther King boulevards usually warn drivers about upcoming construction, but Monday morning they warned of "zombies ahead."

"I thought it was pretty funny," said University of Texas sophomore Jane Shin, who saw the signs while driving down Lamar Bouelvard with friends Sunday night. "We wondered who did it."

The City of Austin does not own the signs, but they are responsible for the message. The contractor on the construction project owns the signs. A city spokesperson said the hacked messages were only up for a few hours, until the construction project manager saw them during his morning commute and immediately ordered them to be changed back.

"Even though this may seem amusing to a lot of people, this is really serious, and it is a crime," said Austin Public Works spokesperson Sara Hartley. "And you can be indicted for it, and we want to make sure our traffic on the roadways stays safe."

Hartley said though it was a locked sign, the padlock for it was cut. Signs such as these have a computer inside that is password-protected.

"And so they had to break in and hack into the computer to do it, so they were pretty determined," said Hartley.

This crime is a class C misdemeanor in Texas, and Hartley said it endangers the public.

"The big problem is public safety," said Hartley. "Those signs are out there to help our traffic on the roadway to stay safe and to know what's coming up."

KXAN Austin News cameras caught many drivers slowing down to read the signs as they approached. Some read, "Zombies ahead! Run for your lives!"

Hartley said the city will discuss more secure safety measures with the manufacturer of the signs.

Speculation among the tech-savvy on the Internet is that the signs were inspired by the video game Call of Duty 5, World at War, which is the top game in the country right now and features "nazi zombies," or an upcoming movie about zombies called "Dead Snow" (an official selection at Sundance '09). There are also several online sites that teach people how to break into these construction signs.



Source / KXAN News

Thanks to Mariann Wizard / The Rag Blog

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Increasingly Reactionary Israel Facing World Condemnation

Izz el-Deen Aboul Aish, a Palestinian doctor who worked in Israel, speaks to the media in Tel Hashomer hospital near Tel Aviv, Jan. 17, 2009. Dr. Aish's children were killed in an Israeli attack in the Gaza Strip. Photo by Reuters.
The trend within Israeli society is toward more extreme positions and greater anti-Arab racism. This most recent Israeli onslaught against the Palestinians in Gaza was accompanied by the arrest of hundreds of Israel’s Arab citizens for peacefully protesting.
By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / January 30, 2009

With its recent invasion of Gaza, Israel has irreparably damaged its moral standing worldwide, especially among the intelligentsia, human rights activists, and perhaps most importantly within the US and European Jewish communities. A most graphic example of the latter is our progressive Jewish friend who organized several peace camps in New Mexico for Israeli and Palestinian girls. A TV documentary made about them was shown on 60 Minutes.

One of the most prominent Palestinian girls in the documentary was the daughter of a Palestinian doctor, Dr. Aboul Aish, a moderate man from Gaza who practiced in Israel. She was killed by tank fire into her home, along with both her sisters, all the doctor’s children, during the most recent Israeli massacre of Palestinians. Our friend was depressed beforehand due to the lack of effect the camps had once the girls returned to the Middle East. Now she is in anguish, her faith in Israel shattered. She leaves soon for Gaza to film a post-mortem interview with the Dr. Aboul Aish.

Since the Gaza invasion, there have been an unprecedented number of articles condemning Israel’s actions in the English language press. Especially in Europe, there is growing support for the prosecution of Israeli leaders for war crimes. The left blogosphere in the US is now completely dominated by writers critical of Israel. As they were in relation to the Iraq War, these are increasingly the opinion leaders who will eventually influence main stream thought.

The trend within Israeli society is toward more extreme positions and greater anti-Arab racism. This most recent Israeli onslaught against the Palestinians in Gaza was accompanied by the arrest of hundreds of Israel’s Arab citizens for peacefully protesting. Israeli government officials have denounced them as traitors and many remain in detention. 94% of the Jewish population of Israel supported the Gaza invasion.

Next month, the Israelis will elect a new government. According to pre-election polls, this election will be won by Benjamin Netanyahu of the right wing and bellicose Likud Party in partnership with “hate-mongering Yisrael Beytenu party headed by the xenophobic Avigdor Lieberman.” They conspicuously have no interest in negotiating peace and will openly expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Liebermanadvocates depriving Arabs of Israeli citizenship.

Of course, Israel’s actions in Gaza and those that are predictable after the upcoming election will spawn a new generation of jihadists throughout the Arab world. But the principal result will be the increasing political isolation of Israel. For the first time since 1948, their detractors will dominate the debate, even in the US and Europe.

President Obama will eventually be forced to break with Israel. In his first week in office, he gave an exclusive interview to Al Arabiya on the situation in the Middle East, his first interview with an international news agency. He named George Mitchell, praised for his even handedness even by Chomsky, his special envoy to the Middle East. He will maintain that “the security of Israel is our paramount concern,” but he will eventually decide that Israel’s own actions compromise that security. More importantly, he will correctly conclude that Israeli aggression compromises the security of the US as well.

I believe Obama wants peace in Israel/Palestine. And as a pragmatist, he also wants solutions, not protracted stalemate. The Israeli leadership and, sadly, most of Israel’s Jewish population do not. An increasing number of them are, furthermore, blatant racists. Obama will not be blind to this fact.

Israel acquired its lands by ethnic cleansing. They have utterly no intention of giving up their ill-gotten gains. Any conceivable peace treaty would require them to do so. They are, and will remain, intransigently unwilling to accept the compromises necessary to bring peace. This rejection of “land for peace” on the part of Israelis will inevitably lead to further violent conflicts. Hence, there is a contradiction between the actions taken by Israel and the security of the US that will force Obama to adopt some form of opposition stance. The likely tangible manifestation of this break will be a US abstention (instead of a veto) on a future resolution condemning Israel in the UN Security Council. Eventually, this contradiction will result in Obama declaring that the aggressive use of US supplied military hardware to Israel is illegal under the terms under which it was provided (for defense only), and some military aid will be curtailed. Although this may limit Israel, they will not be fully deterred.

A growing chorus in the West demanding justice for Palestinians will reinforce this process. As in the case of the movement against South Africa’s apartheid regime, boycotts of all things Israeli are likely to become widespread. We should also clamor for the international prosecutions of Israeli leadership for war crimes. All this and more will be necessary to force Israel to accept a just peace. Israel must stand alone, isolated, shunned and condemned, if it is to ever abandon its oppressive occupation and opposition to a Palestinian state. It will never do so voluntarily, so there is no other option.

Given the enormous contributions to all our lives made by our Jewish brothers and sisters and the suffering their ancestors have endured, this will be an agonizing process. Ideally, Jews will join Palestinians in the leadership of this movement. In that role, they would be a model for reconciliation.

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29 January 2009

Robert Scheer on Obama : Follow the Money!

Obama's economic team, unveiled last November: the fixers helped create the problem. Photo by Sally Ryan / NYT.

'While the new president has already proved to be a brilliant and super-competent agent of change in so many ways, in matters of economic policy he has relied excessively on the financial “experts” who helped get America into this mess.'

By Robert Scheer / January 27, 2009

Only a week into the new administration, and yet there is this nagging thought that Barack Obama’s legacy already hangs in the balance. Sounds absurd, I know, given the brief time, but his early response to the financial meltdown is just that important. Despite a terrific start in so many directions, Obama is up against an economic crisis that, although not of his making, will, if handled improperly, spell his—and the nation’s—undoing.

Obama is in these early weeks making trillion-dollar decisions that will cast the die for the rest of his promising agenda. Unfortunately, while the new president has already proved to be a brilliant and super-competent agent of change in so many ways, in matters of economic policy he has relied excessively on the financial “experts” who helped get America into this mess.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and top White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers are retreads from the Clinton years who sided with congressional Republicans in unraveling the regulatory regime created by Franklin Roosevelt that had served the nation so well. Perhaps they have now come to their senses, given the financial horrors that their deregulatory mania unleashed, but it gives one pause to see these folks back on center stage performing with the same arrogant aplomb as they did when they had it all wrong.

We can only hope they are now prepared to make amends, although Geithner and Summers often seem to be pushing for more of the same: bankers first, women and children later. The good news is that the message coming from the mouth of the new president is that he intends to make a significant departure from the Bush bailout, by placing emphasis on preventing foreclosures, curtailing bank lobbying and holding the recipients of federal funds responsible for opening the tap of loans to the public. The structure of the stimulus package is also reassuring, with its emphasis on spending money in ways that will improve the quality of life for ordinary Americans and its ban on bonuses for corporate execs who utterly failed in their responsibilities. Imagine how much better off we would be if we had just taken the first $350 billion of TARP funds and used it to help teachers, cops, nurses and firemen buy homes in the communities they serve.

We certainly should give Obama the benefit of the doubt. In every other area his early performance has been stellar. Certainly so with respect to human rights and protection of civil liberties; in his first week in office, he reversed many of the atrocious Bush-era policies. With an urgency unmatched by any other modern president, Obama has sharply countered America’s tainted image by acting to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, ban the CIA’s “enhanced” interrogation tactics and restore the power of the Freedom of Information Act to ensure public access to the information required for an informed democracy.

In other important instances, Obama has been refreshingly true to the promises of his campaign by taking the first steps toward ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq, by moving toward energy conservation and by ending punishment of international health organizations that have been severely undermined by the dictates of anti-abortion zealots. His early actions on global warming and the Mideast show a clarity of commitment absent from the executive office over the past eight years.

In these areas, Obama has acted with an informed confidence not always evidenced in his initial moves on the economy. Why, in the management of the economy, do we hear so little from the Chicago community organizer concerned with the pain of the average person and instead perceive so much of the sensibility of the Harvard business and law school elite, preoccupied with the well-being of the denizens of Wall Street?

As Obama stated in his inauguration speech, “A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” That is the problem with the Bush bailout, which Obama asked to be extended and which has resulted in little more than a rearranging of the chairs, not to mention the commodes, of the first-class passengers on a sinking ship. It has been the biggest corporate welfare program in history, enabling Wall Street hustlers to cut themselves lucrative deals while so many millions lose their jobs and homes. I’m betting that Obama will try to put a stop to all of this, but he needs to hear from ordinary folks who are hurting and outraged.

Source / truthdig

Thanks to Dorinda MorenoThe Rag Blog

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Dahr Jamail on Iraq : The Story Beneath the Story

A Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, which the US military now uses for most of its patrols in Iraq's Sadr City. Photo by Dahr Jamail / truthout.
'The political divides across the country run deep, and this thin, fresh, external skin of the lull in overall violence camouflages the plight of the average Iraqi.'
A Capped Volcano of Suffering

By Dahr Jamail / January 29, 2009

Baghdad today, on the eve of provincial elections, feels like it has emerged from several years of horrendous violence, but do not be misled. Every Iraqi I've spoken with feels it is tenuous, the still-fragile lull too young to trust.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provides recent statistics showing that more Iraqis continue to flee their country than are returning. Two studies show the number of dead Iraqis to be between 1.2-1.4 million, and the number of those displaced to be nearly five million, or one in six Iraqis. During 2006 and 2008, scores of bodies were found on the streets of Baghdad and fished from the Tigris River as death squads and sectarian militias raged. All but one of my Iraqi friends and translators have either fled the country, or been killed. It is nearly impossible to meet a family that has not had a family member killed or wounded

Only within the last half-year has violence lessened, and street life returned to something akin to "normal," which means that as opposed to 50-250 Iraqi being slaughtered each day, now it is an average of one, sometimes two dozen per day.

The relative lull has allowed me to travel around Baghdad with relative ease, eat at restaurants, and even conduct interviews on the street; all of which was unheard of during my last visits to Iraq. I've been taking stock of what has changed, and what hasn't.

One of the first things I noted that has not changed did not occur in Iraq. Rather, when arriving in Amman, Jordan and exiting the airplane, I strode into customs to find a Jordanian man holding up a Blackwater USA sign, to be met by four rough looking middle-aged men. The next day, whilst flying into Baghdad, the commercial jet did a "soft-spiral" descent into Baghdad airport, unlike the hard corkscrew descent that they all did when I was last in Iraq, so as not to be shot at by resistance fighters just outside of the airport perimeter.

The infrastructure remains in shambles. The generator at my hotel is running more than it is shut off. Throughout Baghdad, there's an average of four hours of electricity per 24 hours, and people are left with no choice but to drink tap water, when it runs -- water heavily contaminated by waterborne diseases, fuel, sewage and sediment. Jobs are scarce, and people are suffering greatly. The anger about this seethes just beneath the surface everywhere I turn.

Previously, while these conditions were similar, there was still some hope that things might improve. That hope has shifted into a resignation of what is. A surrender into a daily life of trying to find enough money to buy food.

"In 2004 it cost me $1 to fill my car," my interpreter Ali told me yesterday as we drove to Fallujah. "Today it now costs $35. It used to be in Iraq a family could easily live off $500 for two months. Today we are lucky if that lasts a week, because the prices of everything have gone so high."

Beggars are present at most intersections. Where they are not, Iraqi children walk between the rows of cars carrying cigarettes, fruit, or sweets to sell to drivers stuck in the ever-present traffic.

Salah Salman, a day laborer in Sadr City I spoke with the other day, raged against the upcoming elections which are set for January 31. He spoke with me while we stood near a street strewn with garbage near a busy traffic circle.

"I'll not be voting for anyone. We cannot trust any of the candidates, just like during the elections of 2005. What have they done for us? What services have they provided our country? They have achieved nothing for us!"

Like the 2005 elections (and most elections across the globe, for that matter), there are thousands of politicians running on various platforms, from unifying Iraq, to bringing electricity, to improving security, to promoting reconciliation. Most Iraqis I have spoken with about the elections are not holding out much hope.

"New thieves will replace the current thieves," an Iraqi refugee in Amman told me before I flew into Baghdad.

Obvious differences are present. The most evident reason for the decline in US military casualties in Iraq over the last year is that there are clearly far fewer patrols being carried out by US forces, whereas before patrols roamed the streets incessantly. The patrols I do see are carried out in the new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, which are mine-resistant beasts that slowly crawl through the congested streets of Baghdad.

Instead, Iraqi security forces abound. Speeding through the streets with blaring sirens are Iraqi Police in huge, brand new Ford and Chevrolet trucks, which have clearly found their new market since the US has tired of the gas-guzzling behemoths. Further, Iraqi military abound, roaming around in brand new Humvees of the ilk traded in by the US military's upgrade to MRAPs. So much security is deployed on the streets of Baghdad it is impossible to travel more than 15 minutes without finding another checkpoint. To live in Baghdad, like it is to live in many other Iraqi cities, is to live in a police state.

Contractors are visible flying overhead, often in their two-person Kiowa helicopters. They are running the security at the airport and in the Green Zone, which has been called the International Zone for some time now. The mercenary company Triple Canopy employs former Central American death squad members and various nationals from Uganda, a now mostly de-colonized country, to check ID badges at the countless checkpoints I walked through to obtain my mandatory press card inside the heavily fortified compound. Thus, the changing of the face is complete - Iraqi security forces and private contractor mercenaries are now the face of the US occupation of Iraq.

The political divides across the country run deep, and this thin, fresh, external skin of the lull in overall violence camouflages the plight of the average Iraqi. Prices of everything from bottled water to tomatoes have skyrocketed, while jobs have become increasingly scarce. While the major US news outlets have downgraded their staff in Iraq, or pulled out entirely because they feel Iraq is no longer an important story, for most Iraqis who remain here, there is no other option. Flee with no money and become a refugee, or remain and try to survive.

Will the elections bring a lasting stability? Or will groups who feel entitled to power that don't obtain it democratically resort again to violence that will shred what is left of this shattered country?

We shall soon find out.

[Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist who grew up in Houston, is the author of "Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq," (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for eight months as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last four years.]

Source / truthout

Thanks to Bob Simmons / The Rag Blog

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Cool News : Lesbian to Lead Iceland

Johanna Siguardardottir, Iceland's social affairs minister, is set to become the country's interim prime minister. A former flight attendant and union organizer, she is openly gay. Recent polls have showed Sigurdardottir, 66, to be the nation's most popular politician. She will lead until new elections are held, probably in May. Photo by Brynjar Gauti / AP.

Openly gay Johanna Sigurdardottir will be Iceland's next PM. 'She is respected and loved by all of Iceland,' said the island nation's Environment Minister.

By David Stringer / January 28, 2009

AAAREYKJAVIK, Iceland -- Iceland's next leader will be an openly gay former flight attendant who parlayed her experience as a union organizer into a decades-long political career.

Both parties forming Iceland's new coalition government support the appointment of Johanna Sigurdardottir, the island nation's 66-year-old social affairs minister, as Iceland's interim prime minister.

"Now we need a strong government that works with the people," Sigurdardottir told reporters Wednesday, adding that a new administration will likely be installed Saturday.

Sigurdardottir will lead until new elections are held, likely in May. But analysts say she's unlikely to remain in office — chiefly because her center-left Social Democratic Alliance isn't expected to rank among the major parties after the election.

In opinion polls, it trails the Left-Green movement, a junior partner in the new coalition.

Iceland's previous conservative-led government failed Monday after the country's banks collapsed last fall under the weight of huge debts amassed during years of rapid economic growth. The country's currency has since plummeted, while inflation and unemployment are soaring.

Former Prime Minister Geir Haarde won't lead his Independence Party into the new elections because he needs treatment for throat cancer.

While Haarde endured angry protests for months and had his limousine pelted with eggs, polling company Capacent Gallup said Sigurdardottir was Iceland's most popular politician in November, with an approval rating of 73 percent.

She was the only minister to see her rating improve on the previous year's score, Capacent Gallup said Wednesday. The poll of 2,000 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

"It's a question of trust, people believe that she actually cares about people," said Olafur Hardarson, a political scientist at the University of Iceland.
Sigurdardottir is seen by many as a salve to the bubbling tensions in Iceland. Thousands have joined anti-government protests recently. Last week, police used tear gas for the first time in about 50 years to disperse crowds.

"She is a senior parliamentarian, she is respected and loved by all of Iceland," said Environment Minister Thorunn Sveinbjarnardottir, a fellow Alliance party member.
The new leader is known for allocating generous amounts of public funding to help the disabled, the elderly and organizations tackling domestic violence.

But conservative critics say Sigurdardottir's leftist leanings and lack of business experience won't help her fix the economy. "Johanna is a very good woman — but she likes public spending, she is a tax raiser," Haarde said.

Iceland has negotiated about $10 billion in bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund and individual countries. The loans are currently being held as foreign currency reserves.

Banks that were nationalized last year are once again open and trading — but Iceland still owes millions of dollars to foreign depositors.

After acting as a labor organizer when she worked as a flight attendant for Loftleidir Airlines — now Icelandair — in the 1960s and 1970s, Sigurdardottir was elected to Iceland's parliament in 1978. She served as social affairs minister from 1987-1994 and from 2007.

"If there's anyone who can restore trust in the political system it's her," said Eyvindur Karlsson, a 27-year-old translator from Reykjavik. "People respect her because she's never been afraid of standing up to her own party. They see her as someone who isn't tainted by the economic crisis."

In 1995, Sigurdardottir quit the party and formed her own, which won four parliamentary seats in a national election. Several years later, she rejoined her old party when it merged with three other center-left groups.

While a woman has served in the largely symbolic role of president, Sigurdardottir will be Iceland's first female prime minister.

She lives with journalist Jonina Leosdottir, who became her civil partner in 2002, and has two sons from a previous marriage.

Sigurdardottir is best known for her reaction to a failed bid to lead her party in 1994. "My time will come," she predicted in her concession speech.

[Associated Press Writer Valur Gunnarsson contributed to this report.]

Source / AP / AOL News

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'Future Farming' : A 50-Year Plan for Sustainable Agriculture

Wes Jackson, president of The Land Institute, shown with actress Jane Fonda. Photo by Joan Halifax (Upaya) / Wikipedia Commons.
'If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy.'
An interview with Wes Jackson

By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / January 29, 2009

As everyone scrambles for a solution to the crises in the nation’s economy, Wes Jackson suggests we look to nature’s economy for some of the answers. With everyone focused on a stimulus package in the short term, he counsels that we pay more attention to the soil over the long haul

“We live off of what comes out of the soil, not what’s in the bank,” said Jackson, president of The Land Institute. “If we squander the ecological capital of the soil, the capital on paper won’t much matter.”

Jackson doesn’t minimize the threat of the current financial problems but argues that the new administration should consider a “50-year farm bill,” which he and the writer/farmer Wendell Berry proposed in a New York Times op/ed earlier this month.

Central to such a bill would be soil. A plan for sustainable agriculture capable of producing healthful food has to come to solve the twin problems of soil erosion and contamination, said Jackson, who co-founded the research center in 1976 after leaving his job as an environmental studies professor at California State University-Sacramento.

Jackson believes that a key part of the solution is in approaches to growing food that mimic nature instead of trying to subdue it. While Jackson and his fellow researchers at The Land Institute continue their work on Natural Systems Agriculture, he also ponders how to turn the possibilities into policy. He spoke with me from his office in Salina, Kansas.

Robert Jensen: This is a short-term culture, and federal policies typically are aimed at short-term results. Why call for a farm bill that looks so far ahead, especially in tough economic times?

Wes Jackson: For the past 50 or 60 years, we have followed industrialized agricultural policies that have increased the rate of destruction of productive farmland. For those 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe the absurd notion that as long as we have money we will have food. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy.

We need to reverse that destructive process, which means recognizing the need for fundamental changes in the way agriculture is practiced. That requires thinking beyond the next quarterly earnings report of the agribusiness corporations and beyond this fiscal year of the feds. We need farm bills -- laid out in five-year segments, with a view to the next 50 years -- that can be mileposts for moving agriculture from an extractive to a renewable economy.

RJ: What are some of the key aspects of a long-term solution?

WJ: Support for soil conversation and protecting water resources have to be central. There needs to be funding for research on a different model for agriculture. And we have to avoid wasting any more resources on biofuels made from annual crops, especially corn, which is certain to exacerbate soil erosion, chemical contamination, and a larger dead zone in the gulf.

RJ: But it is true that most people, including those in the new administration, are focused on short-term problems in the financial and industrial economy. Is there any chance people -- especially people in an overwhelmingly urban nation -- will pay attention right now?

WJ: Remember, if our agriculture is not sustainable then our food supply is not sustainable, and food is an issue as close to every one of us as our own stomachs. Either we pay attention or we pay a huge price, not so far down the road. When we face the fact that civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland, it’s clear that we don’t really have a choice. Beyond that, changing the way agriculture is practiced would incorporate partial solutions to major problems that people do care about: climate change, over-consumption of energy, water problems. Yes, a 50-year bill is sensible right now.

RJ: What would such a 50-year plan look like? What are the key features?

WJ: We start by acknowledging the necessity of moving from an extractive, unsustainable economy to one that is renewable and sustainable, and the first place to look is to the production of the most basic commodity -- food. Once we face that necessity, we move to examining the possibilities for achieving this, recognizing that we have to act now while we still have slack, some room to move. Here’s a sobering thought: If we don’t achieve this sustainability first in agriculture, it’s highly unlikely we will in any other sector of the economy and society. That’s what makes this so imperative.

RJ: OK, start with the necessity. How is agriculture, as it is practiced today, an extractive enterprise that is unsustainable?

WJ: All organisms are carbon-based and in a constant search for energy-rich carbon. About 10,000 years ago humans moved from gathering/hunting to agriculture, tapping into the first major pool of energy-rich carbon -- the soil. It was agriculture that allowed us effectively to mine, as well as waste, the soil’s carbon and other soil-bound nutrients. Humans went on to exploit the carbon of the forests, coal, oil, and natural gas. But through all that, we’ve continued to practice agriculture that led to soil erosion beyond natural replacement levels. That’s the basic problem of agriculture.

Added to the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has given us pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams. We have less soil, and it is more degraded. We’ve masked that for years through the use of petrochemicals -- pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers. But that “solution” is no solution, and is in fact part of the problem. There are no technological substitutes for healthy soil and no miraculous technological fixes for the problem of agriculture. We need to move past the industrial model and adopt an ecological model.

RJ: This concern about chemicals has led to increased support for organic agriculture. Is that the solution?

WJ: Organic agriculture is a start but by itself is insufficient. Eliminating the chemicals is only half the problem -- we still have to deal with soil erosion. Remember that we humans had organic agriculture until very recently, when we got industrial agriculture, and we still lost soil all along the way, for the last 10,000 years. There is good reason to believe we started the increase of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere about then (with the carbon compound of the soil being oxidized). It has only become a crisis in our time due to the scale increase of people and material and energy throughput.

RJ: OK, so organic alone isn’t the answer. Isn’t that where no-till or minimum-till farming comes in?

WJ: Those methods help deal with erosion, but as practiced today they require unacceptable levels of chemical inputs and end up eliminating biodiversity. Once again, it doesn’t offer a way out of the extractive economy and the problem of contamination.

RJ: So, where does that leave us?

WJ: Let’s go back to basics: The core of this idea is the marriage of agriculture and ecology. As Wendell says, we need to take nature as the measure. We need to look to nature for models of how to manage ecosystems in a sustainable fashion. At The Land Institute, we think that leads to perennial polycultures. Instead of annual crops grown in monocultures on an industrial model, we are looking at perennials in mixtures, which we think can solve a number of problems regarding erosion and contamination.

RJ: Before I ask about the details, a basic question: Is that feasible, given the 6.5 billion people on the planet? Can such strategies focused on perennials produce enough food?

WJ: First, let’s recognize that without fossil fuels, the industrial-agriculture strategies we have now could not feed even the current population, and population growth makes these changes more important than ever. As populations grow, there’s increasing pressure to put more and more marginal land into production, which increases the rate of degradation. A new model is essential.

At The Land we’ve been working on perenializing the major crops and domesticating a few promising wild species. By increasing the use of mixtures of grain-bearing perennials, we can not only better protect the soil but also help reduce greenhouse gases, fossil-fuel use, and toxic pollution. Carbon sequestration would increase, and the husbandry of water and soil nutrients would become much more efficient.

RJ: Let’s assume that Natural Systems Agriculture and similar projects hold the promise you suggest. Those practices will have to be implemented in the real world, which is structured by the larger extractive economy in capitalism, at a time of crisis -- some would say, even, a time of collapse. What has to happen to make that possible?

WJ: You’re right that it’s not just about plants and science, it’s also about people and society. We think that protecting the soil is not only an ecological imperative but an opportunity for positive economic and cultural change as well. The proposals we’re discussing would increase employment opportunities in agriculture -- sustainable farming will require more “eyes per acre,” and replacing fossil-fuel energy with human energy and ecological knowledge makes good economic sense. With the reduced need for the hoe or plow, and land management relying more on fire and grazing, we draw on the naturalist instinct in nearly all of us, rather than presenting farm work as nothing but the “sweat of the brow” amid “thistles and thorns.” This will be necessary to counter the longstanding denigration of the countryside and rural communities, which has been a feature of our so-called cosmopolitan culture.

We’re seeing that on a small scale now with more young farmers staying on the land, with creative new endeavors in community-supported agriculture. People recognize that life is more than working in a small cubicle and consuming in a big-box store. People are hungry for good food, and they’re also hungry for a good life. People are ready to explore what it would mean to come home, not to a romanticized vision of the past but to a sustainable future.

RJ: How would a farm bill that you and Wendell might write differ from what we see today?

WJ: The farm bills we’ve had largely address exports, commodity problems, subsidies and food programs. They all involve here-and-now concerns. A 50-year farm bill represents a vision that stresses the need to protect soil from erosion, cut the wastefulness of water, cut fossil-fuel dependence, eliminate toxins in soil and water, manage carefully the nitrogen of the soil, reduce dead zones, restore an agrarian way of life, and preserve farmland from development. The best way to accomplish most of these goals is to gradually increase the number of acres with perennial vegetation, first of all through rotations and an increase in the number of grass-fed dairies sprinkled about the countryside and secondly, through progress toward perennializing the major crops. A good bill could help farmers accomplish those things.

RJ: It’s also likely that many people reading this will dismiss you as idealistic, as unrealistic. How would you answer that?

WJ: These are the same people who believe it’s realistic to continue practices they know to be unsustainable. The basic choice is simple: Do we want to work at coming up with a system that can produce healthful food and healthy communities, one that is economically and ecologically viable? Or do we want to continue to contaminate our soil and water, as we watch that soil continue to be eroded by that water? That contamination and erosion are both material reality and metaphor for our cultural and economic condition.

Look, I’m a scientist from the countryside, which means I have spent my life dealing with reality in research and on the farm. These are necessary and possible goals. Without the necessity it may be considered grandiose. Without the possibility it could be regarded as grandiose. The test for grandiosity, in my view, fails. As a nation, we are blessed with some of the world’s best soils. Increasingly city people want healthier and safer food. And we’re at a political moment when everybody and his dog is talking about the need for change. So, let’s get to it.

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake, will be published in 2009 by Soft Skull Press. Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found Source.]

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