Notes and Comment Blog

You bought it

Apr 9th, 2017 5:22 pm | By

Robert Reich on Facebook:

Update for Trump voters.

1. He said he wouldn’t bomb Syria. You bought it. Then he bombed Syria.

2. He said he’d build a wall along the border with Mexico. You bought it. Now his secretary of homeland security says “It’s unlikely that we will build a wall.”

3. He said he’d clean the Washington swamp. You bought it. Then he brought into his administration more billionaires, CEOs, and Wall Street moguls than in any administration in history, to make laws that will enrich their businesses.

4. He said he’d repeal Obamacare and replace it with something “wonderful.” You bought it. Then he didn’t.

5. He said he’d use his business experience to whip the White House into shape. You bought it. Then he created the most chaotic, dysfunctional, back-stabbing White House in modern history, in which no one is in charge.

6. He said he’d release his tax returns, eventually. You bought it. He hasn’t, and says he never will.

7. He said he’d divest himself from his financial empire, to avoid any conflicts of interest. You bought it. He remains heavily involved in his businesses, makes money off of foreign dignitaries staying at his Washington hotel, gets China to give the Trump brand trademark and copyright rights, manipulates the stock market on a daily basis, and has more conflicts of interest than can even be counted.

8. He said Clinton was in the pockets of Goldman Sachs, and would do whatever they said. You bought it. Then he put half a dozen Goldman Sachs executives in positions of power in his administration.

9. He said he’d surround himself with all the best and smartest people. You bought it. Then he put Betsy DeVos, opponent of public education, in charge of education; Jeff Sessions, opponent of the Voting Rights Act, in charge of voting rights; Ben Carson, opponent of the Fair Housing Act, in charge of fair housing; Scott Pruitt, climate change denier, in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Russian quisling Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.

10. He said he’d faithfully execute the law. You bought it.
Then he said his predecessor, Barack Obama, spied on him, without any evidence of Obama ever doing so, in order to divert attention from the FBI’s investigation into collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives to win the election.

11. He said he knew more about strategy and terrorism than the Generals did. You bought it. Then he promptly gave the green light to a disastrous raid in Yemen- even though all his Generals said it would be a terrible idea. This raid resulted in the deaths of a Navy SEAL, an 8-year old American girl, and numerous civilians. The actual target of the raid escaped, and no useful intel was gained.

12. He called Barack Obama “the vacationer-in-Chief” and accused him of playing more rounds of golf than Tiger Woods. He promised to never be the kind of president who took cushy vacations on the taxpayer’s dime, not when there was so much important work to be done. You bought it. He has by now spent more taxpayer money on vacations than Obama did in the first 3 years of his presidency.

13. He called CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times “fake news” and said they were his enemy. You bought it. Now he gets his information from Fox News, Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, and InfoWars.

More to come.

Making more bad things happen

Apr 9th, 2017 11:47 am | By

That evil piece of shit. EVIL.

The Trump administration informed Congress on Monday that it had terminated United States funding for the United Nations Population Fund, the world’s leading provider of family planning services, including contraception, to women in at least 155 countries.

The United States is one of the top donor nations to the United Nations, and the denial of funding was one of President Trump’s biggest moves yet to reduce financing for family planning.

Rich thieving rapist American white guy cuts off funding for contraception so that more poor brown women around the world will be forced to conceive and bear children they don’t want to conceive and bear.

In a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs said it had determined that the Population Fund “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization,” a reference to the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, a 1980s-era law enacted in response to evidence of forced abortions and involuntary sterilization in China.

Women’s health advocates contend that evidence has repeatedly shown that the Population Fund’s work in China does not violate the amendment. But opponents of family planning have historically demanded that the United States end its support.

Opponents of the possibility for women to have a choice about getting pregnant. That’s what “opponents of family planning” really means. Opposition to contraception equals advocating the enslavement of women.

The Population Fund is the single largest international provider of contraception, family planning, and other reproductive health services. In 2016, health advocacy groups say, American support for the organization’s work prevented an estimated 320,000 pregnancies and averted 100,000 unsafe abortions, while ensuring 800,000 people had access to contraception.

The Trump regime wants an estimated 320,000 women to be impregnated against their will.

Lunch torture

Apr 9th, 2017 10:30 am | By

Well that’s a thing I didn’t know was happening.

What is “lunch shaming?” It happens when a child can’t pay a school lunch bill.

In Alabama, a child short on funds was stamped on the arm with “I Need Lunch Money.” In some schools, children are forced to clean cafeteria tables in front of their peers to pay the debt. Other schools require cafeteria workers to take a child’s hot food and throw it in the trash if he doesn’t have the money to pay for it.

New Mexico has passed a bill outlawing that kind of bullying.

In some cases, cafeteria workers have been ordered to throw away the hot lunches of children who owed money, giving them alternatives like sandwiches, milk and fruit.

“People on both sides of the aisle were genuinely horrified that schools were allowed to throw out children’s food or make them work to pay off debt,” said Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, an anti-poverty group that spearheaded the law. “It sounds like some scene from ‘Little Orphan Annie,’ but it happens every day.”

Well let’s face it, the US fosters a culture that treats poor people as Losers and worse. Of course sadism is the result, and of course the sadism can be directed at children.

Lunch shaming can take a toll on the adults enlisted to carry it out as well as on children. A Pittsburgh-area cafeteria worker made national news when she quit her job rather than deny hot lunches to students.

Some school employees reach into their own pockets to pay for meals. Sharon Schaefer, a former chef at a high school in Omaha, said one cashier asked to be removed from her position because of the school’s “no money, no meal” policy. “She had been secretly paying for students’ meals,” Ms. Schaefer said, “and couldn’t afford to keep it up.”

So that’s heart-breaking.

More explosions

Apr 9th, 2017 9:32 am | By

I saw people yesterday saying this was going to happen. I thought they were exaggerating the level of predictability. BBC headline: Egypt’s Coptic churches hit by deadly blasts on Palm Sunday.

In Alexandria, an explosion outside St Mark’s Coptic church killed 13 people. Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Church, had been attending Mass inside and was unhurt, state media reported.

An earlier blast at St George’s Coptic church in Tanta killed 29 people.

So-called Islamic State (IS) says it is behind the explosions. The group has recently targeted Copts in Egypt.

Four police officers, including one policewoman, were among those killed in Alexandria, the interior ministry said. The suicide bomber blew himself up after they stopped him from entering the church.

It’s like the 16th century, but with better weapons.

The first explosion in Tanta, 94km (58 miles) north of Cairo, took place near the altar.

Security forces later dismantled two explosive devices at the Sidi Abdel Rahim Mosque, also in Tanta, the state-run Al-Ahram news website reports.

The explosions injured at least 71 people in Tanta and 35 others in Alexandria, the health ministry said.

The blasts appear to have been timed for maximum impact, as people gathered to mark Palm Sunday. It is one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, marking the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.

Egyptian security forces had been put on alert in anticipation of attacks.

That concludes this chapter of Today in Religious Violence.

You’re talking to the wrong people

Apr 9th, 2017 9:23 am | By

Speaking of Searle’s girls…Monica Byrne wrote this brilliant retort to Microsoft the other day.

It has to do with your new ad campaign, which I happened to see while I was at the gym last week. Here’s the gist: brilliant young girls express their ambitions to cure cancer and explore outer space and play with the latest in virtual reality tech. Then—gotcha!—they’re shown a statistic that only 6.7% of women graduate with STEM degrees. They look crushed. The tagline? “Change the world. Stay in STEM.”

Are you fucking kidding me?

Microsoft, where’s your ad campaign telling adult male scientists not to rape their colleagues in the field? Where’s the campaign telling them not to steal or take credit for women’s work? Or not to serially sexually harass their students? Not to discriminate against them? Not to ignoredismiss, or fail to promote them at the same rate as men? Not to publish their work at a statistically significant lower rate? Not to refuse to take women on field expeditions, as did my graduate advisor, now tenured at University of Washington? Where’s your ad campaign telling institutions not to hire, shelter, or give tenure to serial harassers or known sexists, as UW and countless others have done? Where’s your ad campaign encouraging scientific journals to switch to blind submissionsand blind peer reviewers? Or to pay women at the same rateas men?

In other words – don’t tell girls to Try Harder and Push Through; tell people and institutions to stop putting up all those barriers and obstacles.

It’s what we keep having to retort to Christina Hoff Sommers and Michael Shermer and Sam Harris: stop telling women to suck it up and try harder, because nobody should have to try harder simply because others throw obstacles in their path.

It’s that awful, smug, callous libertarian pseudo-Stoicism in which everyone is a pioneer hero surviving a North Dakota winter in a tent. This is not the first human exploration of Mars, this is people working in institutions that systematically disadvantage some people for reasons of sex or race or other arbitrarily disfavored category.

Among the comments:

  • So true. This is why I left STEM, years of being told repeatedly by mentors, teachers, and professors that I could not be in the field because of my gender and ethnic background meant I decided to make a career elsewhere.
  • Sadly yes. I saw the same adds, I was really excited about it at the first glance. And then I soon felt something is wrong, it’s missing the point. I have a STEM degree and work at this industry. I can clearly tell it’s way less friendly to women, I has to be over qualify for my job but still get a lower pay than my other male colleagues. So I left my job.
  • Yes – the sheer volume of hostility from my STEM professors and my advisor – all male – was what discouraged me into leaving STEM.
  • Amen. I left tech for my own health and survival, coming up on two years ago now. Until I see ads about lecherous VCs and abusive executives being fired en masse, I don’t want to hear it. Filling the pipeline doesn’t matter when the field can’t retain the women it does bring in, because of abysmal behavior, pay discrimination, and all the rest.And thank you for this: “Everyones’ noses have been pushed in these same data for decades and nothing changes.” Exactly. And in my anecdotal experience, it is worse than it was decades ago. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

That’s only about halfway down the page; there are lots more.

H/t ibbica

The No Impulse Control Doctrine

Apr 8th, 2017 5:02 pm | By

So now we’re pretending that Trump has a worked-out policy or plan or organizing principle or something, and that the word for it is “flexibility.”

As he confronted a series of international challenges from the Middle East to Asia last week, President Trump made certain that nothing was certain about his foreign policy. To the extent that a Trump Doctrine is emerging, it seems to be this: don’t get roped in by doctrine.

Please. Laziness isn’t a “doctrine.” Empty-headedness isn’t a doctrine. Toddler-level impulsiveness isn’t a doctrine. Being totally random isn’t a doctrine. Breaking all the rules and stamping all over the porcelain isn’t a doctrine.

“Our decisions,” Mr. Trump said in the Saturday address, “will be guided by our values and our goals — and we will reject the path of inflexible ideology that too often leads to unintended consequences.”

That concept, flexibility, seems key to understanding Mr. Trump. He hates to be boxed in, as he mused in the Rose Garden last week while contemplating the first new military operation of his presidency with geopolitical consequences.

“I like to think of myself as a very flexible person,” he told reporters. “I don’t have to have one specific way.” He made clear he cherished unpredictability. “I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing,” he said.

He’s not making a serious argument there. He’s explaining how awesome he is. What he means by not having to have “one specific way” (such an elegant way to put it) is that he doesn’t want to do the work of figuring out what he thinks and what that tells him he should do. It’s so much easier to just do what you feel like in the moment and then praise yourself to an admiring world for being so “flexible.”

That flexibility was a hallmark of his rise in real estate, and if critics preferred the word erratic, it did not bother Mr. Trump — it has since worked well enough to vault him to the White House. But now that he is commander in chief of the world’s most powerful nation, leaders around the world are trying to detect a method to the man.

Well quite. He’s erratic, which is to say random. That’s because he’s lazy, ignorant, and thick. That’s all. Let’s don’t complicate it or big it up with talk of doctrine.

“There is no emerging doctrine for Trump foreign policy in a classical sense,” said Kathleen H. Hicks, a former Pentagon official who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are, however, clear emerging characteristics consistent with the attributes of the man himself: unpredictable, instinctual and undisciplined.”

There you go. That’s what I’m saying.

If the girl had the sword and the boy had to wait for her

Apr 8th, 2017 11:28 am | By

Is it a crime against childhood to teach children to read critically? Kathryn Heyman thinks not.

This week, the Victorian Education Department released their Respectful Relationships program for state primary schools. In spite of the shock headlines reporting fairytales being ‘banned’, the program simply helps teach children how to deconstruct those stories. In other words, it teaches them how to read. As Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said, with admirable restraint, “We are very much in favour of kids reading stories and then sitting down and talking about them. It is called learning.”

If you don’t look at stories (of all kinds) with a critical eye you can’t think about how they’re shaping you. It’s quite a good idea to think about how various bits of culture are shaping us, in case we don’t want to be shaped in that way.

Critics of the Respectful Relationships program seem to want it both ways. On one hand, fairy stories are sacred, innate to human life and, like the Bible, have been handed to us by divine forces – but have no real impact on the listener or the reader. Harmless, innocent, fun. On the other, if we change them, or merely critique them, terrible things will happen. Boys will grow breasts, girls will wield swords, society will fall apart.

Servants will talk about what chumps the people upstairs are.

In one interview, Australian Catholic University academic Kevin Donnelly said, “It’s a concerted campaign across kindergarten to year 12 to indoctrinate children with a gender and sexuality program that is biased and ideological.” Which seems to suggest the stories in which men lock women up for failing to be meek, or stories in which women are loved when they are pretty and silent (ideally asleep) – that these stories are not concerted campaigns to indoctrinate children with an ideological position.

Well I would say they’re not necessarily concerted campaigns. They can easily be just based on everyone’s unquestioned assumptions.

In fact, the Respectful Relationships program aims to have children look at traditional fairytales and take on a “fairytale detective” role, asking what the messages are, and what might happen, for instance, if “the girl had the sword and the boy had to wait for her to rescue him”. It does not – as far as I can tell – advocate locking boys up in towers or making them wait to be rescued. It simply suggest interrogating the text. As the Premier said, “That’s called learning.”

But it questions the unquestioned assumptions that wrote the girl as imprisoned and the boy as her rescuer, and that makes people who share the unquestioned assumptions feel very uneasy.

When children hear stories, they are making sense of the world, and casting themselves in the various roles. That’s one of the reasons girls grow up wanting to be princesses, if they’re not careful.

That plus all the princess merchandise in the toy shops and all the pink frilly stuff in the clothes shops.

Question all the things!

Image result for question all the things

This sort of thing still happens

Apr 8th, 2017 11:01 am | By

From Sally Haslanger’s Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone):

Why there aren’t more women of my cohort in philosophy? Because there were very few of us
and there was a lot of outright discrimination. I think a lot of philosophers aren’t aware of what women in the profession deal with, so let me give some examples. In my year at Berkeley and in the two years ahead of me and two years behind me, there was only one woman each year in a class of 8-10. The women in the two years ahead of me and the two years behind me dropped out, so I was the only woman left in five consecutive classes. In graduate school I was told by one of my teachers that he had “never seen a first rate woman philosophy and never expected to because women were incapable of having seminal ideas.” I was the butt of jokes when I received a distinction on my prelims, since it seemed funny to everyone to suggest I should get a blood test to determine if I was really a woman. In a seminar in philosophical logic, I was asked to give a presentation on a historical figure when none of the other (male) students were, later to learn that this was because the professor assumed I’d be writing a thesis on the history of philosophy. When I was at Penn as a junior faculty member and told a senior colleague that I was going to be married (to another philosopher, Stephen Yablo, then at UM), his response was, “Oh, I’m so sorry we’ll be losing you.” This was in 1989.

I mention these anecdotes (and there are many more) not in order to gain sympathy, or because they are especially egregious, but because this sort of thing still happens all the time. When I was at the University of Michigan in the mid-90’s there were three consecutive graduate student classes with no women. When this was raised as an issue, the majority of faculty hadn’t even noticed it. In many departments women find themselves solos on faculties or in graduate school cohorts. Virtually all minorities in philosophy find themselves solos. Surviving as a solo is a painful and difficult process I’ll discuss more below.

Moreover, blatant discrimination has not disappeared. I’ve witnessed plenty of occasions when a woman’s status in graduate school was questioned because she was married, or had a child (or took time off to have a child so was returning to philosophy as a “mature” student), or was in a long-distance relationship. For some reason, this never seems to be an issue for men. I know many women who have interests and talents in M&E who have been encouraged to do ethics or history of philosophy. I’ve been contacted as recently as this year by graduate student women’s groups and individual women to help them strategize about problems they are facing as women in their programs, problems that include alleged sexual harassment, hostile or chilly climate, and various sorts of unfairness. I am contacted by Deans who are reevaluating tenure decisions of women (and minorities) to comment on norms and practices in philosophy that seem to have disadvantaged the tenure candidate in question. And I never cease to be amazed.

My point here is that I don’t think we need to scratch our heads and wonder what on earth is
going on that keeps women out of philosophy. In my experience it is very hard to find a place in philosophy that isn’t actively hostile towards women and minorities, or at least assumes that a successful philosopher should look and act like a (traditional, white) man. And most women and minorities who are sufficiently qualified to get into grad school in philosophy have choices. They don’t have to put up with this mistreatment. Many who recognize that something about choices is relevant have explained to me that women choose not to go into philosophy because they have other options that pay better or have more prestige. This may be true for some, but this doesn’t sound like the women I know who have quit philosophy (and it sounds a lot more like the men I know who have quit). Women, I believe, want a good working environment with mutual respect. And philosophy, mostly, doesn’t offer that.

Editing to add:

And this, via Bernard Hurley:

Searle’s Girls

Apr 8th, 2017 10:25 am | By

Another “prominent male philosopher suddenly found to have long history of sexual harassment accusations” story, where “suddenly found to have”=”has long been known to have but we tried to keep it quiet for a few decades.” The long history this time belongs to John Searle.

Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show that Joanna Ong, 24, who filed suit against Searle and the University of California Regents last month, was not the first woman to report the 84-year-old professor to the university. Ong’s suit alleges that she was fired from her job as Searle’s research assistant after rejecting his advances.

In 2014, an undergraduate student said Searle told her she couldn’t be his research assistant because she was married and thus wouldn’t be as dedicated to the job.

In 2013, a foreign exchange student said Searle lunged at her and tried to kiss her in his office.

In 2004, a graduate student was so shocked by Searle’s behavior at a dinner event for prospective students that she wrote to the chair of the philosophy department condemning Searle’s “highly inappropriate” actions, which included Searle trying to play footsie with her under the table.

Searle denies Ong’s claims, and questions her motives. There’s a surprise. The university says the usual thing too. Looking into it, mutter mutter.

Some of Searle’s inappropriate behavior was an open secret among the philosophy students and faculty at the flagship University of California campus, which has been grappling with professor–student sexual misconduct scandals since 2015. His rotating stable of young, female assistants were known around campus as “Searle’s Girls.” Before Ong filed her lawsuit, which also alleges Searle watched porn in front of her and made sexist comments, philosophy graduate students struggled with how to address concerns about their department’s star philosopher. Those who did report him said their claims seemed to go nowhere.

If you’re a star philosopher, they let you do it.

Philosophy has a pervasive gender gap, and female philosophers have long said sexual harassment is one major factor that makes it difficult for women to succeed in the field. That’s why Kristina Gehrman wrote a letter to the then-chair of Berkeley’s philosophy department after what she called a “degrading” experience with Searle in 2004.

“I am concerned with the need to raise awareness among the faculty about gender-related issues in general within our community, and with the need to develop some concrete department level practices to prevent and/or respond to specific experiences like mine in the future,” Gehrman wrote in the letter, which was signed by eight other female philosophy graduate students.

Gehrman, then a graduate student in her twenties, met Searle at a department dinner for prospective students, she wrote in the letter, which was obtained by BuzzFeed News. Searle never asked her name, instead calling her “his girl,” she wrote. He invited her skiing in Tahoe and said he had taken an undergraduate female research assistant there before. He rubbed her foot with his under the table, she wrote, and when it was time for dessert, Searle insisted Gehrman share his plate.

He was being friendly.

Gehrman sent her letter, she met with administrators, they told her Searle would get training, and…that was the end of the matter. She transferred to UCLA – she thought about quitting philosophy altogether. Remember that gender gap in philosophy? There it is.

One grad student reported he invited her to his office and then pounced on her. Another reported he refused to hire her as a research assistant because she was married.

“I just worry that you won’t be as dedicated to the job,” she said Searle told her, even though she had received an A- in his class.

Well it is of course true that when women get married a portion of their brain dies.

A graduate student who passed on V.’s complaint about Searle to the philosophy department in 2014 said she never heard from the OPHD until this week, when the department emailed to say it heard she “might have information regarding potential behavior that may be in violation of university policy.”

“At the time, I assumed OPHD was handling the situation,” the graduate student said. “Now that I know about similar complaints, it’s clear that they should have done more.”

Jackson Kernion, a graduate student in the philosophy department, said he understood the faculty was limited in scope and had incomplete information about Searle’s behavior. Still, he said, he felt “there could have been a more vigorous response, given the serious concerns raised by grad students” at both formal and informal meetings.

“A number of Berkeley students had their first contact with academic philosophy by taking one of Searle’s classes,” Kernion said. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise that women and minorities sitting in his classes came away with the impression that they were less than fully welcomed in the field.”

It’s always worth re-reading Sally Haslanger’s paper.

Guest post: A bit of firsthand experience in the region

Apr 7th, 2017 5:35 pm | By

Originally a comment by Helene on Rhetoric and imagery which is pure and simple Jew hatred.

I hold no brief for the Israeli government, especially not Netanyahu and his rightwing coalition. In particular, I loathe the meddling by ultra-orthodox rabbis and the haredi community in many civil matters (e.g. marriage, divorce). But there is little doubt that Israel is by far the most liberal (full women’s rights, gays rights — gays serve openly in the military and the only gay pride parade that I’ve seen bigger than Tel Aviv’s is the one in Berlin — press freedom, general civil rights, etc.) and democratic country in the Middle East, with a better record on many of these issues than many European countries.

The “apartheid” epithet is nonsense. If you mean it to apply to Israeli Arabs, you’re utterly wrong. Their main disadvantage is that they are exempt from military conscription and therefore do not enjoy the special government benefits extended to ex-servicemen/women. Nevertheless, some Arabs (mainly Christian Arabs), many Bedouin – and most Druze – (altogether Muslims constitute about 20% of the Israeli population) do volunteer for military or public service and then do qualify for the government benefits. In all other respects, Arabs are full citizens. All religions are fully acknowledged. The Islamic WAPF controls the Muslim religious sites and various Christian denominations control their churches and religious sites. Arabic is an official language and Arab schools have their own curriculum in Arabic. Arabs are elected to the Knesset, head scientific, medical, educational, artistic and political institutions: ambassadorships, government agencies, even seats on the Israeli supreme court.

If you mean to apply the “apartheid” epithet to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, you’d be closer to the mark. Israel controls the borders militarily but civil and domestic matters, including police, are under Palestinian Authority or (in Gaza) de facto Hamas control. Many of the Jewish “settlers” in the West Bank enclaves are vile bible-thumpers but, as the various Israeli peace proposals over the years (in particular the one brokered by Clinton in 2000 and the even more generous one made in 2008 by Olmert) showed, many of these settlements would have been closed and with border adjustments the Palestinians would have received 95- 97% of their territory, plus compensation, upon ratification. But Abbas, and even Arafat before him (about whom Clinton said: “I regret that in 2000 Arafat missed the opportunity to bring that nation into being and pray for the day when the dreams of the Palestinian people for a state and a better life will be realized in a just and lasting peace”), perhaps remembering what happened to Sadat, who was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood when he signed the first Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, declined to ratify any sort of real peace with Israel. After Israel fully withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it didn’t take long for Hamas to throw Fatah members off rooftops and begin sending rockets into Israel.

If you mean “apartheid” in a strictly racial sense, there are about 125,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, not to mention smaller groups from other African countries and, being brown myself, I could not help noticing many more dark faces in Tel Aviv than in Ramallah … or, for that matter, Beirut.

If you mean to apply the “apartheid” epithet to the separation wall/fence that Israel built along some sections of the border with the West Bank, it is undeniably repugnant, but (from the Israeli point of view) it helped put a stop to the attacks and bombings that claimed the lives of over a thousand Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada.

I gave two lectures in Birzeit University (my mother’s family is from Lebanon so I have a bit of Arabic) and I attended a conference at the Technion in Haifa… just to indicate to you that I have a bit of firsthand experience in the region.

By comparison, Lebanon, which comes closest to Israel in being multi-ethnic and multi-religious, used to have a precarious political balance between various religious and ethnic groups (Maronites, Orthodox, Sunni, Shia, Druze, &c), but it is now utterly under the sway of Hezbollah, next to ISIS the worst bunch of theocratic tyrants in the entire region (along with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, they are the ones supporting Assad’s murderous campaign against his own people). Though most left years ago, my mother still has some relatives in Lebanon, but they are Sunni (Iran and Hezbollah are Shia, Assad is Alawaite, generally subsumed under Shia, but the majority of Syrians are Sunni, including the Kurds in the north) and they see the writing on the wall. Half a million Syrians have died in this civil war, most, horrendously, at Assad’s hands, and several million more have been driven from their homes. But for some people, if it can’t be blamed on the West (or on Israel, which has quietly been treating Syrian wounded in its hospitals), it isn’t worth protesting.

DHS says never mind

Apr 7th, 2017 5:20 pm | By

That ended quickly. Good. The Washington Post reports:

The legal battle between Twitter and the U.S. government ended Friday as the Department of Homeland Security withdrew its demand that the tech company release information to identify an account holder whose tweets have been critical of President Trump.

The lawsuit threatened to become a major battle between Silicon Valley and Washington over free speech. But it was over almost before it began. The social networking site filed a lawsuit Thursday to protest the order, saying that it violated the user’s First Amendment right to free expression. But Twitter dropped its suit Friday, saying in a court filing that because “the summons has now been withdrawn, Twitter voluntary dismisses without prejudice all claims.”

Alt Immigration thanked Twitter and the ACLU.

Ron Wyden sent a letter urging Customs and Border Protection to do an internal review into how and why CBP issued the summons.

The Post continues:

Courts have traditionally given a high degree of protection to political speech, including the right to speak anonymously or with a pseudonym. That includes, in many circumstances, government employees who are critical of the agencies for which they work.

“This is just, as best as I can tell, the government trying to figure out who is expressing criticisms, and that is chilling,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

If the goal was to quiet the dissent, it seems to have failed. The number of followers for the Twitter account grew from “over 32,000” to more than 150,000 in less than 24 hours.

I’m one.

Yousef had rushed to help the other victims of the attack

Apr 7th, 2017 11:15 am | By

The Guardian yesterday carried a report from Khan Sheikhun, where the sarin attack occurred, by Kareem Shaheen, the first reporter from western media to get there.

The only reminder of what happened is a small, blackened, crater near the northern part of town, where a rocket laced with a nerve agent fell, killing more than 70 people in one of the worst mass casualty chemical attacks in the six-year war in Syria.

All that remains of the attack on the town in rebel-held Idlib province is a faint stench that tingles the nostrils and a small green fragment from the rocket. The houses nearby are emptied of the living.

The victims’ symptoms are consistent with sarin, the nerve agent that was dropped on an opposition-held area near Damascus in 2013, killing more than 1,000 people. After that attack the regime supposedly gave up its chemical weapons arsenal.

Russia is claiming there was a poison-gas plant there, but Shaheen found only a warehouse and silos “reeking of leftover grain and animal manure.”

He talked to a lot of people and got new information.

“It was like Judgment Day,” said Hamid Khutainy, a civil defence volunteer in Khan Sheikhun.

Witnesses said the air raids began shortly after 6.30am on Tuesday, with four bombings around the town. Initially they thought it was just another airstrike, until the first responders who arrived at the scene began falling to the ground.

Khutainy said: “They told us ‘HQ, we are losing control’. We had no idea what they were trying to say. Then they said, ‘come save us, we can no longer walk’. So the second and third teams went with just face masks. We could smell it from 500 metres away.”

People described a scene of utter horror at the attack site . The wounded were shaking and convulsing on the ground, foaming at the mouth, their lips blue, passing in and out of consciousness.

The suffocating patients and those who had died were taken to the nearby civil defence centre and the adjacent clinic built into the side of a rocky mountainous outcrop to withstand potential airstrikes. The dead were laid in a nearby shed while emergency workers hosed down the injured with water, and administered atropine, a nerve agent antidote.

But while medical workers were trying to come to grips with the crisis, between eight and 10 airstrikes targeted the medical facility and civil defence centre. The shed collapsed on the dead, and the site was put out of service.

They bombed the place where people were trying to save the victims.

Abdulhamid al-Yousef, one of the few survivors in the family, was receiving condolences at his home in Khan Sheikhun, a day after burying his wife and nine-month-old twins, Ahmed and Aya, fighting back tears.

Yousef had rushed to help the other victims of the attack. He came back instead to find that much of his family had perished, including siblings, nephews and nieces. His wife and children had rushed down to the bomb shelter in their basement, only for the toxic gas to seep into it, which killed them all.

That evening at the cemetery, he insisted on carrying his two infants in his arms to bury them himself. Almost in a trance Yousef repeated the children’s names, choking as he did so. “Aya and Ahmed, my souls. Yasser and Ahmed, my brothers who had my back. Ammoura and Hammoudi, Shaimaa, so many others,” he said.

That’s some of what happened in Khan Sheikhun.

Acting impulsively

Apr 7th, 2017 10:10 am | By

The Times starts with the obvious: the photos were horrifying, with all that follows from that. Then it moves to the still obvious but all the more alarming.

This time, though, a new American president was seeing the pictures and absorbing the horror.

Donald J. Trump has always taken pride in his readiness to act on instinct, whether in real estate or reality television. On Thursday, an emotional President Trump took the greatest risk of his young presidency, ordering a retaliatory missile strike on Syria for its latest chemical weapons attack. In a dizzying 48 hours, he upended a foreign policy doctrine based on putting America first and avoiding messy conflicts in distant lands.

You don’t want a president who acts on instinct, much less one with built-in readiness to act on instinct, much less one who prides himself on readiness to act on instinct. You don’t. You want one who is well aware that instinct can be wrong and that impulsive military action “on instinct” is a horrific idea – especially in someone who can fire the nukes.

That’s true even if he did 100% the right thing in yesterday’s missile launch.

Mr. Trump’s advisers framed his decision in the dry language of international norms and strategic deterrence. In truth, it was an emotional act by a man suddenly aware that the world’s problems were now his — and that turning away, to him, was not an option.

“I will tell you,” he said to reporters in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, “that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.”

Well, it can get worse than that. There can be more victims, just for a start.

But more to the point: this is not the first time. Where was he before? Yapping on Twitter, that’s where.

t was difficult to reconcile the anguished president with the snarky critic of American engagement who, from the comfort of private life, advised President Barack Obama not to strike Syria after a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus three years ago.

“President Obama, do not attack Syria,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter in September 2013. “There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!”

And it is not easy to square Mr. Trump’s empathy for the victims of a single chemical weapons attack with his refusal to take in thousands of Syrian refugees from years of strife that have turned that country into a charnel house. Relaxing that policy did not come up in the president’s deliberations over striking Syria, his advisers said.

Because that’s not his “instinct” – and that’s one reason “instinct” is not enough, as well as being often the wrong thing entirely.

The president’s advisers insisted his decision was guided by strategic considerations. They were clearly uncomfortable with the suggestion that Mr. Trump was acting impulsively.

Yes, I’m sure they were, but it’s very obvious that he was.

Mr. Trump’s aides described a deliberative process, with meetings of the National Security Council, presentations of military options by the Pentagon and a classified briefing for Mr. Trump held under a tent erected in Mar-a-Lago to secure the communications with Washington. They spoke of phone calls to American allies, consultations with lawmakers and the diplomatic engagement that would follow the Tomahawk cruise missiles.

What is clear, however, is that Mr. Trump reacted viscerally to the images of the death of innocent children in Syria. And that reaction propelled him into a sequence of actions that will change the course of his presidency. Mr. Trump’s improvisational style has sometimes seemed ill suited to the gravity of his office. In this case, it helped lead him to make the gravest decision a commander-in-chief can make.

“I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly, I will tell you that,” the president said of Syria on Wednesday. “It is now my responsibility.”

I watched him say that last night. I watched it with disgust. It’s not an occasion for him to display his vanity and self-obsession yet again.

Hundreds of people running

Apr 7th, 2017 9:17 am | By

Stockholm’s turn.

A man steered a stolen beer truck into a crowd of people and then rammed it into a department store, killing at least three people in the heart of Stockholm on Friday afternoon, the police and local news outlets reported.

The Swedish intelligence agency said “a large number” of people had been wounded in what officials were calling a terrorist assault.

The police said the first emergency call came in around 2:50 p.m. local time as the attack unfolded in Drottninggatan, Stockholm’s busiest shopping street.

Witnesses described a scene of panic and terror.

“I saw hundreds of people running; they ran for their lives” before the truck crashed into the Ahlens department store, a witness identified only as Anna told the newspaper Aftonbladet.

I suppose Trump will say that’s what he was talking about.

Andreea Cristea

Apr 7th, 2017 8:59 am | By

The Romanian woman who was knocked off Westminster Bridge has died. The BBC reports:

Andreea Cristea is the fifth victim of the attack on 22 March, in which Khalid Masood drove into crowds on Westminster Bridge then stabbed a policeman to death, before being shot dead himself.

Ms Cristea, 31, who was on holiday with boyfriend Andrei Burnaz, had been in hospital since the attack.

She was an architect.

The couple were in London to celebrate Mr Burnaz’s birthday and he had been planning to propose to Ms Cristea that day, Romania’s UK ambassador Dan Mihalache told the BBC.

He said it was thought Masood’s car had mounted the pavement and hit Mr Burnaz, before pushing Ms Cristea into the Thames.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he was “deeply saddened to hear of the death of Andreea Cristea”.

He tweeted: “Londoners hold her & her loved ones in our thoughts today.”

Homo homini lupus.


Friendships in trouble

Apr 7th, 2017 8:54 am | By

So I guess Trump and Putin are no longer BFFs. Sad.

Russia on Friday froze a critical agreement on military cooperation with the United States in Syria after an American military strike, warning that the operation would further corrode already dismal relations between Moscow and Washington.

Syria, Russia’s ally, condemned the American strikes as “a disgraceful act.”

Mr. Peskov said that the cruise missile strikes on Friday represented a “significant blow” to American-Russian ties, and that Mr. Putin considered the attack a breach of international law that had been made under a false pretext. “The Syrian Army has no chemical weapons at its disposal,” Mr. Peskov said.

The American strikes on an airfield in Al Shayrat, which were aimed at Syrian fighter jets and other infrastructure, ignored the fact that “terrorists” had also used chemical weapons, Mr. Peskov said, without naming specific instances.

Iran is also peeved, while Saudi Arabia is enthusiastic.

The British defense secretary, Michael Fallon, expressed support for the American missile strikes. “One of the purposes of this very limited and appropriate action was to deter the regime from using gas in this appalling way,” he told the BBC.

In a joint statement, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President François Hollande of France said that Mr. Assad, the Syrian president, “bears sole responsibility.”

Erdoğan also gave a thumbs up.

“Several times a day we were taken out and beaten”

Apr 6th, 2017 6:11 pm | By

Tom Parfitt in The Times (the London one) today:

Victims of a violent campaign against gay men in Chechnya have described being beaten, tortured and held in a secret prison.

At least three people were allegedly killed and dozens abused after police rounded up more than 100 men, including religious figures, a hairdresser and a television host.
Some of those detained over the past two months were struck with pieces of wood, made to sit on bottles or subjected to electric shocks, according to testimony collected by Novaya Gazeta, the independent Russian newspaper.

One unidentified victim said that he had been taken to a secret detention facility where dozens of gay men were held alongside suspected Islamists who had fought in Syria.

“Several times a day we were taken out and beaten,” he said. “Their main aim was to find out your circle of contacts — in their minds if you are a suspect then your circle of contacts are all gay. They kept our phones switched on. Any man who called or wrote was a new catch. They attached an electro-shocker to our hands and turned the handle to produce a current. It was painful.”

The men were also beaten with plastic pipes, the victim said. “They always hit us below the waist — on the thighs, the buttocks, the loins. They said we were dogs who had no right to life.”

Another man said he had fled abroad after police in Chechnya beat him repeatedly and extorted money from him in exchange for not telling his relatives about his sexual orientation.

But Kadyrov says it’s all lies.

An anonymous man told a helpline run by LGBT activists that he had been held at a barracks near the town of Argun, along with 15 other people.

Chechnya is ruled by President Kadyrov, 40, a supporter of President Putin. When Novaya Gazeta published its initial report of the abuse on Saturday Mr Kadyrov’s spokesman, Alvi Karimov, said it was “absolute lies”.

“You cannot detain and persecute people who do not exist in the republic,” he said. “If there were such people in Chechnya, their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”

So they’re not being tortured and killed, because they don’t exist, because their relatives killed them all. That’s ok then.

The request exceeded Homeland Security’s authority

Apr 6th, 2017 5:42 pm | By

American Oversight put out a press release:

American Oversight Investigates DHS Attempt to Stifle Online Criticism

On April 6, Twitter filed a lawsuit alleging the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had attempted to use a customs summons to unmask the identity of an anonymous Twitter user critical of the administration. In its complaint, Twitter alleged that the request exceeded Homeland Security’s authority and infringed on the constitutional rights of Twitter’s users to engage in political speech.

“Homeland Security’s effort to stretch an obscure customs regulation to stifle political dissent is deeply troubling,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight. “This raises serious questions about the new administration. We have a right to know whether this action was ordered by political leadership or even the White House. While government officials don’t have the right to expose the identities of people who criticize them, the American people do have the right to identify government officials who try to abuse their power.”

That’s how that works, see. We do get to criticize the government. The government doesn’t get to punish or silence us for doing that.

American Oversight has put in a FOIA request and will let us know what it finds out.

Alt Immigration

Apr 6th, 2017 5:34 pm | By

The government is demanding what?

Twitter filed a lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, asking the court to prevent the department from taking steps to unmask the user behind an account critical of the Trump administration.

The tech company said that allowing DHS access to that information would produce a “grave chilling effect on the speech of that account,” as well as other accounts critical of the U.S. government. The case sets up a potential showdown over free speech between Silicon Valley and Washington.

According to Twitter’s court filings, Homeland Security is “unlawfully abusing a limited-purpose investigatory tool” to find out who is behind the @ALT_USCIS account. Its Twitter feed has publicly criticized the administration’s immigration policies, particularly the actions of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) division of Homeland Security.

Of course I immediately sprinted off to Twitter and followed @ALT_USCIS.

Homeland Security refused to answer the Washington Post’s questions.

In the filing, Twitter said that DHS officials delivered an administrative summons to the social networking site on March 14, via a Customs and Border Protection agent, demanding that the company provide records that would “unmask or likely lead to the unmasking” of the person or people behind the account.

Twitter opposes the order on two main points. First, it maintains that the CBP does not have jurisdiction to demand such information, which includes “names, account login, phone numbers, mailing addresses, and I.P. addresses,” associated with the account.

But its primary objection, the company said, is that allowing the government to unmask Twitter critics is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech. Twitter has long defended its users’ rights to free expression — a position it has held for years, notably during the widespread “Arab Spring” protests in 2011. That right, the company said, is particularly important when discussing political speech.

It’s a good deal less important, I would argue, when bullying people. One Twitter account is not in a position to bully the DHS.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the user in this case, also said that it’s concerned the order is an attempt to infringe on free speech. “To unmask an anonymous speaker online, the government must have a strong justification. But in this case the government has given no reason at all, leading to concerns that it is simply trying to stifle dissent,” said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler in a statement.

The @Alt_USCIS account is one of many “alternative government” accounts that have been popping up since President Trump’s election. Accounts apparently run by employees (or former employees) of the National Park Service, National Weather Service, Labor Department and other agencies have all appeared to question the Trump administration’s policies and fact-check its assertions on a variety of topics.

Twitter said it also feared that the government wants to punish the person or people responsible for the account. The summons, the company said, “may reflect the very sort of official retaliation that can result from speech that criticizes government officials and agencies.”

Ya think?

I hope Twitter prevails on this one.

Love-bombing the dictator

Apr 6th, 2017 10:50 am | By

A Times editorial Tuesday took issue with Trump’s lovefest with Sisi…

…a man responsible for killing hundreds of Egyptians, jailing thousands of others and, in the process, running his country and its reputation into the ground.

The expressions of mutual admiration that permeated the Oval Office were borderline unctuous. Mr. Trump praised Mr. Sisi for doing a “fantastic job” and assured him he has a “great friend and ally in the United States and in me.” In return, Mr. Sisi, who had been barred from the White House during the Obama administration, and who craved the respect such a visit would afford, expressed his “deep appreciation and admiration” for Mr. Trump’s “unique personality.”

Trump all but crawled into Sisi’s lap. So unlike the reception he gave Angela Merkel, including boorishly ignoring her invitation to shake hands for the cameras.

Mr. Trump acknowledged that the two countries “have a few things” they don’t agree on, but he pointedly did not mention the abysmal human rights record of Mr. Sisi’s government, which the State Department and human rights groups have accused of gross abuses, including torture and unlawful killings.

Because he prides himself on not giving a shit about human rights.

Mr. Sisi first cracked down on the Islamists, including a 2013 massacre that killed more than 800 people, then turned his sights on secular opponents and nongovernmental groups. The United States suspended delivery of a modest amount of military aid and asked for improvements in human rights and democracy, which never happened.

Mr. Trump has now made it transparently clear that human rights and democracy are not his big concerns and that he places more value on Egypt as a partner in the fight against the Islamic State. What he does not grasp is that, while Egypt is an important country, it cannot be a force for regional stability nor the partner Mr. Trump imagines on counterterrorism or anything else if Mr. Sisi does not radically change his ways. Mr. Sisi’s repression against enemies real and imagined, his management of the economy and inability to train, educate and create jobs for his nation’s youth can only fuel more anger and unrest.

Sorry, that’s too complicated for Donnie from Queens.