Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tim Geithner's Legacy Assets

The more I see of this plan, the more I hate it.

Notice the one thing you do not see is any talk about a return of regulation of the banking industry, particularly the Glass-Steagall Act, which would have prevented much of the abuse that has led us to the financial debacle that we are in today, particularly for third party participants like AIG and Bear Sterns. No, you do not hear anything about it because Obama's advisers, like Lawrence Summers and the current Secretary of Treasury, lobbied and supported the repeal of Glass-Steagall under the Clinton Administration. In essence, we are rewarding the criminal activities of our lending institutions by taking their debt and putting it on our dollar as taxpayers.

Imagine the US government declaring that letting Bernie Madoff go under would hurt all parties involved ("he is too big to go bankrupt") and then assuming all the monies the man stole from his investors, while allowing his investment company to remain in business and Bernie free as a bird for his weekend jaunts to Hyannis. In another world, we would call this rewarding crime. Today, our government calls it asset management.

Why in the world would Obama fall for this is beyond me. I have stated all along that he is setting himself up for a fall by surrounding himself with these corporate hacks as his economic advisers, and today we are seeing the resulting equivalent of a financial congregation of Donald Rumsfelds possessing the levers of power over policy. Of course, the right-wing will denounce this and call the plan socialistic, but you only need to see the positive response from the real capitalists on Wall Street to see who the beneficiaries are going to be, and it is not going to be the average American.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sports: The Celebration of Ignorance

Escapism is abound in our world. I am sure in the Middle Ages when economies, or what constituted them, collapsed, people fell back on religion or other forms of psychological perversions to justify their otherwise uneventful lives. Today, we have sports, and we have a nation where more people know about the NFL draft than the number of Congressmen who use taxpayer's money to soak off of government-provided health care, while simultaneously preaching to us the necessity of finding it for ourselves.

For this, we have but ourselves to blame for our quandary. It is easy to blame the system, but it has always been this way. In an open society, ultimately, we are responsible for our own ignorance of the state and theft that those in positions of authority are committing in our name.

The Roar of the Crowd

Sports fans' primal behavior


Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn't religion, but spectator sports. What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves? The real question we should be asking during the madness surrounding this month's collegiate basketball championship season is not who will win, but why anyone cares.

Not that I would try to stop anyone from root, root, rooting to his or her heart's content. It's just that such things are normally done by pigs, in the mud, or by seedlings, lacking a firm grip on reality — fine for them, but I am not at all sure this is something that human beings should do. In desperation, if threatened with starvation, I suppose that I would root — for dinner. But for the home team? Never.

More than a decade ago, a baseball strike canceled the season and the World Series. The first time ever, we were told in hushed tones. A national trauma. Baseball had survived world wars, cold wars, hot dogs — even night games, the designated hitter, and Astroturf — only to succumb to a labor dispute between spoiled millionaire players and even-more-spoiled billionaire owners. How could it be summer without baseball, the pundits pouted? Most portentous, how could we be us without our spectator fix?

But wait. Here is heresy indeed: Was it really such a disaster? Or is it a disaster that our current paragons have been revealed to be hormonally enhanced and ethically challenged? Or if a college team is denied a bowl slot? Is life so pale, dull, and unsatisfying that it must be experienced vicariously in order to be savored? You might try reading a book, talking with your family, going for a walk, wrestling with the dog, listening to some music, smelling a flower, making love.

Let me be clear: It is not the doughty doing of sports that is so ill-conceived, but the woeful watching, the ridiculous rooting, the silly spectating. Nor is it a uniquely American affliction. Spectator sports may be a true "cross-cultural universal," in which the soccer ball has the kind of global salience to which Esperanto once unsuccessfully aspired, although the details of spectatorship owe much to local flavoring: Among Canadians, hockey worship is so pervasive that the running joke when the 2005 season was canceled was that sell-out crowds would still show up, just to watch the ice-resurfacing machines go around the empty rinks. In Afghanistan, the rage — except for brief banishment under the Taliban — has long been buzkashi, a violent and tumultuous game seemingly devoid of rules, in which thousands of onlookers go berserk while hundreds of mounted riders try to carry off the decapitated corpse of a goat.

I have no quarrel with vigorous participation, pursuing an activity for its own sake, for the exercise, the camaraderie, the joy of simply doing it. That appeal is in fact so strong that the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga seriously proposed 70 years ago that the human species be renamed Homo ludens (man the player).

Maybe there is a primitive, deep-seated wisdom in our penchant for play generally, and for athletics in particular. "We run," according to the first four-minute miler, Roger Bannister, "not because we think it is doing us good but because we cannot help ourselves." But if we run — or jump, throw, catch, kick, or bat — because we cannot help ourselves, do we also watch others do so for the same reason? Are we compulsive voyeurs?

For one thing, we get identification from our sports frenzy, the experience of seeing ourselves in the exploits of another. In his novel A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley depicted the New York Giants' star running back Frank Gifford accomplishing with a football all those things the narrator failed to achieve in love and work: "It was very simple, really. Where I could not, with syntax, give shape to my fantasies, Gifford could, with his superb timing, his great hands, his uncanny faking, give shape to his." Earlier in the novel, the narrator — in a mental hospital — told a friend: "He may be the only fame I'll ever have!"

Maybe it is time to rework Andy Warhol's observation that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes: Thanks to spectator sports, each of us can know fame for most of our lives, so long as we are satisfied with the ever-shifting, warmed-over shadow of someone else's.

Youngsters seem especially prone to that delusion, desperate as they are for heroes, and craving the opportunity to bask in another's glory. And so when children avidly pore over vacuous images and vital statistics, or traipse enthusiastically to the local (or even distant) stadium, it is easy to make allowances. Indeed, there is something touching about such fresh-faced yearning for exemplars, even though the constellations they see may not be notable for the content of their characters, intelligence, compassion, decency, or creativity, but rather for an uncommon and sometimes downright freakish ability to hit, throw, catch, roll, or bounce a ball, to jump high or punch hard, or to bump into other people in such a manner as to knock them down and/or avoid being knocked down themselves. Small wonder everyone ends up disappointed when those luminaries are revealed to be moral dwarfs.

"Say it ain't so, Joe. Say it ain't so," a young child is supposed to have pleaded with Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Chicago White Sox baseball star who helped "throw" the 1919 World Series in return for a payoff from gamblers. But it was so, and none but the most naïve of children and the most ardently deluded of adults should have been surprised. What is remarkable is not that athletes so often fail to be admirable people or to lead exemplary lives off the field, but that anyone would ever expect it to be otherwise.

For every youngster who admires the likes of Einstein, Gandhi, Jonas Salk, or Alice Walker, there are probably tens of thousands who wind up adoring and seeking to emulate Ty Cobb, known as a racist, or drunkards and gluttons like Babe Ruth, compulsive womanizers like Wilt Chamberlain, gamblers like Pete Rose, or steroid abusers like ... (fill in the blank).

Of course, there have been athletes who were admirable, even off the field. On balance, however, the probability is that successful athletes number among themselves more than their share of alcoholics, misogynists, sociopaths, and violence-prone dimwits and miscreants. After all, these are adults paid to play children's games, and there is simply no reason why the ability to do remarkable things with one's body — things that are generally quick and violent — should make someone worth emulating in any other way, and probably good reasons why the opposite is more likely.

Add to the primal passion for identification another natural tendency — the yearning to be part of a group — and the result is a potent brew. Spectator sports offer quick and easy entree into an instant community. Never mind that it is ersatz. It is there for the joining; no need to "make the team." Instead, just buy a ticket, a T-shirt, or turn on the television or radio. The would-be applicant is immediately taken in ... in more ways than one.

It makes sense that an athlete's family and friends (at least some of them) might want to watch him or her compete. But surely not the many thousands who cram into our arenas this month. One possibility is that these observers, neither family nor friends of the athletes, are in some way deceived into imagining themselves family or friends.

The sports audience is complicit in its own deception, downright eager to be thus misled. As to why, let's consider the basic biology of Homo sapiens, as well as some general traits that we appear to share with other living things. Take, for starters, our basic inclination to affiliate into groups. Nothing abnormal here; it is one of the most appropriate human needs. Both developmentally and evolutionarily, it pays human beings to be group-loving, aggregative creatures.

The human fondness for groups begins early; namely, at birth. Each of us enters the world utterly dependent on someone else, most of the time a mother who provides nurturance and, specifically, milk, as with other mammals. As we grow, we expand our circle of connectedness, becoming part of an ever-growing "team" consisting of siblings, other relatives, close friends and associates, and so forth. In all probability, our Pleistocene ancestors affiliated into like subgroups within each tribe, and when it came to encounters between tribes, they made sure, first, that they were members of one tribe or another (to be unaffiliated was, in most cases, to be soon dead), and second, when the choice presented itself, to be part of the bigger — hence, stronger — one.

The issue was survival and reproduction versus failure and extinction, à la Darwin. "The more the merrier," we often tell ourselves, and for good reason: Even though two is company and three a crowd, we have always spent much more time trying to survive and prosper than courting or making love.

For tens of thousands of years during our early evolutionary history, there was safety in numbers, just as there is today for ants, horses, or chimpanzees. A single herring, swimming fearfully in the cold Atlantic, or a lonely wildebeest tramping its solitary way over the African savannah, is vulnerable to a hungry tuna or lion. But that herring or wildebeest can make itself somewhat safer by sidling up close to another herring or wildebeest, if only because a potential predator might choose the neighbor instead. Better yet, get yourself near a pair of herrings or wildebeests, or a dozen, or a hundred. For their part, the other group members aren't feeling "used," since they have been figuring the same way. They positively invite you to join because your presence makes them safer, too. Very likely such evolutionary factors were operating among our ancestors. Groups also provided the opportunity for division of labor, made it easier for prospective mates to meet, and provided for the pooling of material resources (like food) and for sharing precious wisdom (where to find water during those once-in-50-year droughts).

In addition — and this may well have been especially important for early human beings — we doubtless benefited from group size when we became enemies to each other. Even as affiliative grouping undoubtedly contributed to our survival and success, it could well have created its own kind of Frankenstein's monster: other groups. Although considerations of efficiency might have meant that our social units sometimes became oversized, it is easy to imagine how the presence of large, threatening bands of our own species pressured us to seek numbers to find safety.

When group fought group, the likelihood is that the larger one won; if so, individuals preferring a sizable crowd triumphed at the expense of those less socially inclined. To the primitive wisdom of the infant, seeking connection first to the mother and then to other family members and friends, there would accordingly have been added a related tendency: preferring larger groups to smaller ones.

Here we may well detect yet another of our connections to the animal world. Students of animal behavior identify what they call "releasers," signals that induce a seemingly automatic response in another animal. For example, the Nobel-prize winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen described how male stickleback fish, kept in an aquarium, rushed to attack the image of a red truck whenever one drove by his lab window. Male sticklebacks themselves have red breasts, and apparently a patch of red serves to "release" the fishes' aggression. Not only that, but the larger the patch, the more the aggression. So there are exaggerated stimuli in the animal world that evoke exaggerated responses.

Consider the American oystercatcher, a shorebird about the size of a crow, with black back, white belly, and a stunning orange bill and feet. This bird lays eggs that are appropriate to its size; it then incubates them, as behooves most birds. The oystercatcher can also be fooled, however, induced to sit on artificial eggs made of plaster or papier-mâché, so long as the models are painted with the appropriate pattern of blotches that signals "egg" and releases incubation behavior in this species.

Things get especially interesting for our purposes when the oystercatcher is presented with a hugely oversized model egg, as big as a watermelon, but adorned with the correct releasing pattern. Oystercatchers are positively entranced by such a supernormal releaser and contentedly perch upon it in preference to their own eggs. There is something absurd about a small bird, earnestly incubating an "egg" that is perhaps 20 times its body volume, although the preference becomes understandable in terms of the oystercatcher's biologically appropriate inclination to hatch its own eggs. Give the unsuspecting animal an oversized model, and we get an oversized response.

Human beings, fortunately, are not as vulnerable as oystercatchers. We do not dangle helplessly at the end of strings pulled by releasers. On the other hand, we seem to have certain preferences that whisper deep within us. And so women are inclined to exaggerate the redness of their lips, the lushness of their hair, or the size of their breasts, in efforts to enhance their appeal to men, just as men might seek to enhance their apparent height, or the breadth of their shoulders, hoping to evoke a larger-than-ordinary response from women. Could we be similarly susceptible to the blandishments of large groups?

Certainly we can be bamboozled, induced to sit atop our various self-identified groups in an orgy of affiliation that makes the oystercatcher seem downright insightful. But it feels good because as we perch there, we satisfy a deep craving, indulging the illusion of being part of something larger than ourselves and thus nurtured, understood, accepted, enlarged, empowered, gratified, protected.

The observer of spectator sports cannot help but confront the odd underbelly of this passion: the yearning to be someone else, or at least, a very small part of something else, so long as that something else is Something Else, large and imposing, impressive and thus irresistible. That dark desire for deindividuation was felt for millennia by the herring and the wildebeest, and perfected by human beings centuries ago: interestingly, not by sports franchises but by the world's military forces.

To the psychologically naïve, it may seem a peculiar anachronism that military boot camps prescribe close-order drill for young recruits and conscripts. After all, the days of the British square are long gone. But drill sergeants the world around know something important about the impact of repetitive, closely coordinated and choreographed movements, performed in synchrony by large numbers of people. The originating genius of that practice was Maurice of Nassau, a Dutchman living from 1567 to 1625. The historian William H. McNeill once commented on why modern armed forces still use Maurice's techniques, nearly five centuries after he introduced them: "When a group of men move their arm and leg muscles in unison for prolonged periods of time, a primitive and very powerful social bond wells up among them. This probably results from the fact that movement of the big muscles in unison rouses echoes of the most primitive level of sociality known to humankind."

It is no great distance from the mesmerizing impact of close-order drill to the stimulating consequence of shared chanting and cheering, the waving of arms (military or civilian) in unison. The Wave, which many fans say originated in my hometown of Seattle, is a good example. Even though they don't get to swing a bat, throw a pass, or sink a three-pointer, fans have been inventive in providing themselves with ritualized, shared movements that further embellish the allure as well as the illusion of being part of the larger, shared whole, tapping into that primitive satisfaction that moves at almost lightning speed from shared, ritual action to a tempestuous sense of expanded self. One becomes part of a great beckoning, grunting, yet smoothly functioning, and, presumably, security-generating Beast. And for those involved, it apparently feels good to be thus devoured whole and to live in its belly.

In his book The Ghost in the Machine, Arthur Koestler noted that "the glory and the tragedy of the human condition both derive from our powers of self-transcendence." Koestler went on to point out that there was an important difference between primitive identification (fish in a school, birds in a flock) that results in a homogenous, selfless grouping, and the higher level of integration that produces a heterogeneous assemblage whose members retain their individuality. In the first case — which includes the rabid sports fan — there is a surrender of personal identity and responsibility. In the second — that of the reader or theatergoer — the escape from the self is always conditional, transient, and within control.

Sometimes the rapport of identification can be harmless, not uncommonly resulting in giggles, laughter, yawning. Sometimes it is more sinister. As Koestler emphasized, the acts of greatest human violence and destructiveness have arisen not from personal aggressiveness or nastiness, but from self-transcendence in the form of seductive, mindless identification with a group. Think of Rwanda's Hutus and Tutsis, Bosnian Serbs and Muslims, Nazis and Jews, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Israelis and Palestinians.

It is not even necessary to be physically present in the belly of the beastly group in order to be swallowed up by it. As Koestler put it, "One can be a victim of group mentality even in the privacy of one's bath." How about the privacy of one's box seat? Although some studies have shown that players may be a bit less aggressive after a game — probably because they are physically exhausted — fans are not. Thus when spectators were assessed as to their degree of hostility before and after attending various athletic events, the researchers found, if anything, a slight tendency for aggressiveness to be higher after witnessing the spectacle. In that sense, watching sports it is not altogether different from watching other forms of violence. As hooliganism after soccer games repeatedly demonstrates, it can literally evoke violence as well.

Our predisposition for large groups has also given birth to one of the most grotesque happenstances of human history: nationalism. When ardent nationalists convince themselves that a highly arbitrary conglomeration of tens of millions of human beings is somehow biologically or socially "real" and deeply consequential enough to give up their lives and shed the blood of those associated with other nations — you can bet that something deep in the human psyche is being touched. Sports fans may simply be the comic sidekicks of nationalists.

Come and sit here, they are told. And eagerly, they do. They think it is a seat in a stadium, or by their television set, but really they are incubating an oversized egg.

Dazzled by the prospect of being part of a group, fans eagerly wear the group's insignia or team colors. They get to "know" the team members, "up close and personal," as sports journalists like to boast, inducing many spectators to believe that they are personally important to "their" team's success. In Japan, where baseball is the national passion as well as pastime, the illusion is carried even further: Thousands show up at every game fully dressed in their team's uniform, as though just waiting to be called to the plate. In America there is always the occasional scramble to get a ball hit into the stands, although in reality the only real "participation" permitted major-league baseball fans is standing up for the national anthem and then the seventh-inning stretch. (Not that the latter should be disparaged; for many avid fans, after all, it is closest thing to exercise they are likely to get.)

"We're No. 1!" chant the crowds. "We have them now, only two innings to go." "If we can only hold on for another quarter." As Tonto pointedly asked the Lone Ranger in the old joke: "What you mean 'we,' white man?"

By we, the fan means the whole deliciously desirable, immensely seductive group. He means that he is no longer just little old himself, but something larger, grander, more impressive, more important, and thus, more appealing. Sports fans, in this view, are nationalists writ small. Or oystercatchers writ human, which is to say, moved by inclinations less distinct and less automatic than the rigidly stereotyped response to releasers and the obedient superresponse to supernormal releasers that are found among many animals, but inclined to some sort of response nonetheless. There is nothing unusual about it, although even now, I must admit, the whole business perplexes me.

But an oystercatcher would understand perfectly.

David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book, How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories, written with Judith Eve Lipton, is forthcoming in April from Columbia University Press.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Who's So Afraid of An Angry Public?

The wealthy, that's who. And they should worried. It is not easy being a thief in this country while everyone else is being pauperized.

Frankly, I think the anger is a good thing, as a form of venting, and as a means of holding people accountable. So, Wall Street is upset that the AIG executives might lose the bonuses they stole from us? All that tells us is just how utterly removed Wall Street is from the problems of this country.

And it is not just Wall Street. It is also the Obama Administration. His neo-liberal free trade DLC picks for economic advisers and Secretary of Treasury are coming back to haunt him in the worst way. To hear Lawrence Summers tell us, we just cannot stop anyone from stealing, if it was contractually allowed, but I Mr. Summers sure did not mind running out leftist professors from Harvard, in violation of their contract, or preaching the virtues of union-busting as a free market economist. You see, when a high school-educated industrial worker from the Midwest makes $60,000 in a union job, that is a threat and his or her contract must be renegotiated. Such are the values of the Blue Dog/DLC clique that has run the party into the ground (and are only riding the halls of power now because of the ineptitude of George Bush).

Just how far removed are they? Here is Vice President Biden's economic adviser Jared Bernstein on AIG.

VP adviser: AIG bonus tax may go too far

WASHINGTON – Vice President Joe Biden's economic adviser warned Sunday that a congressional plan to tax American International Group Inc. executives' bonuses may go too far in using the tax code as a tool for retribution.

President Barack Obama has not said whether he would veto some version of a House-backed plan to heavily tax the $165 million in bonuses. Biden economist Jared Bernstein said it's important to look at what version of the proposal comes out of the Senate.

"I think the president would be concerned that this bill may have some problems in going too far — the House bill may go too far in terms of some — some legal issues, constitutional validity, using the tax code to surgically punish a small group," Bernstein said in a television interview. "That may be a dangerous way to go."

Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate also have expressed concern about the plan's approach to dealing with the AIG bonuses.

American International Group received billions in taxpayer dollars to keep its doors open but still paid employees the bonuses their contracts required. Populist anger led the House to impose a 90 percent tax on bonuses paid this year to companies that needed government bailout money.

Obama and his top advisers called the bonuses outrageous and condemned them. Bernstein said the administration must be focused on the big picture, not just one company.

"What happened at AIG, vis-a-vis these bonuses, is a symptom of a much larger problem," he said. "And we cannot lose sight of the larger problem, which is stabilizing financial markets,"

Bernstein appeared on ABC's "This Week."


The saddest part is that Bernstein is supposed to be the most progressive, "pro-labor" of the advisers. If ever you wondered why the Democratic Party is not a real progressive party, it is attitudes like Mr. Bernstein's. Good luck to those wishing or hoping that Congress or the White House will want to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act, the repeal of which was precipitated by those same economic advisers back in the late '90s.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Victory for Human Rights

Today is a momentous day in this country, one that will have a ripple effect across the rest of the gay-hating fruited plains that have baited and second-classed gays and lesbians for electoral politics.

US endorses UN gay rights text

By MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Wednesday formally endorsed a U.N. statement calling for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality, a measure that former President George W. Bush had refused to sign.

The move was the administration's latest in reversing Bush-era decisions that have been heavily criticized by human rights and other groups. The United States was the only western nation not to sign onto the declaration when it came up at the U.N. General Assembly in December.

"The United States supports the U.N.'s statement on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity and is pleased to join the other 66 U.N. member states who have declared their support of the statement," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

"The United States is an outspoken defender of human rights and critic of human rights abuses around the world," Wood told reporters. "As such, we join with other supporters of this statement, and we will continue to remind countries of the importance of respecting the human rights of all people in all appropriate international fora."

The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the administration would endorse the statement.

Gay rights groups hailed the move.

"The administration's leadership on this issue will be a powerful rebuke of an earlier Bush administration position that sought to deny the universal application of human rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals," said Mark Bromley of the Council for Global Equality, which promotes equal rights for homosexuals.

"This is long past overdue and we are encouraged by the signal it sends that the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will now be considered human rights," said Rea Carey, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Human rights groups had criticized the Bush administration when it refused to sign the statement when it was presented at the United Nations on Dec. 19. U.S. officials said then that the U.S. opposed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but that parts of the declaration raised legal questions that needed further review.

According to negotiators, the Bush team had concerns that those sections could commit the federal government on matters that fall under state jurisdiction. In some states, landlords and private employers are allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation; on the federal level, gays are not allowed to serve openly in the military.

But Wood said a "careful interagency review" by the Obama administration had concluded that "supporting this statement commits us to no legal obligations."

When it was voted on in December, 66 of the U.N.'s 192 member countries signed the nonbinding declaration, which backers called an historic step to push the General Assembly to deal more forthrightly with anti-gay discrimination. It was endorsed by all 27 European Union members as well as Japan, Australia and Mexico.

But 70 U.N. members outlaw homosexuality — and in several, homosexual acts can be punished by execution. More than 50 nations, including members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, opposed the declaration.

Some Islamic countries said at the time that protecting sexual orientation could lead to "the social normalization and possibly the legalization of deplorable acts" such as pedophilia and incest. The declaration was also opposed by the Vatican.


Of course, it is a declaration and without enforceability in international law, but a declaration of principles is better than nothing at all (and it is usually a stepping stone to real treaties, like the graduation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women). Notice the strange alliance American conservatives have with Islamists and other such democratic luminaries like North Korea and Libya.

It is a good day to savor, and when we are to the point that the expressions in that declaration are federal and state law in this country, then we will know those statements of principles truly mean something. I hope it is sooner rather than later. Every person in our society should always have an inherent right to equal treatment under the law.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Battle of The Drones

I used to think science fiction movies were just that, fiction. Apparently, we are closer to becoming The Terminator than we realize.

Iranian drone shot down inside Iraq, U.S. says

Incident allegedly happened on Feb. 25 and 60 miles northeast of Baghdad

msnbc.com news services
updated 12:49 p.m. ET, Mon., March. 16, 2009

BAGHDAD - U.S. forces shot down an Iranian drone aircraft that ventured inside Iraq several weeks ago, the U.S. military and a senior Iraqi military official said on Monday, an incident that could highlight deep U.S.-Iranian tensions.

"An unmanned Iranian plane crossed the border and it was discovered by multi-national forces' radar. They intercepted it and brought it down ... an American plane brought it down," Major-General Abdul Aziz Mohammed Jassim, head of military operations at the Iraqi Defense Ministry, told Reuters.

"According to the report received by multinational forces, this drone entered Iraq mistakenly at a point 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Baghdad. It crossed 10 kilometers (6 miles) into Iraq. It's most likely that its entrance (into Iraq) was a mistake," Jassim said.

A U.S. military spokesman confirmed the incident, saying it happened on Feb. 25 but describing it as "not an accident."

"The UAV had been tracked by coalition air forces for nearly 1 hour and 10 minutes before it was engaged and shot down well inside Iraqi airspace," the spokesman said.

The unmanned plane was identified as an "Ababil 3" model and had been tracked for more than an hour, the military said.

Allegations against Iran
The U.S. military has accused Iran of arming militants and meddling in neighboring Iraq, where tens of thousands have died in sectarian violence since the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Relations between the government of Iraq's Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Iran, a fellow majority Shiite nation, are mostly friendly.

The two countries fought a bloody eight-year war in the 1980s which killed an estimated 1 million people, but ties have warmed since Saddam, a Sunni Arab, was removed from power.

In recent months, as violence has dropped sharply in Iraq, U.S. officials have spoken less forcefully about Iran's alleged role in Iraq.

In a shift from the Bush administration, President Barack Obama has said he would be open to engaging with Iran on a range of issues, from nuclear ambitions to how Iran might assist in Afghanistan.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he also is open to talks with Washington, but demands fundamental changes to U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Underlying U.S.-Iranian tensions is Iran's nuclear program, which Washington believes is aimed at building atomic weapons. Iran insists it seeks only power generation.

The United States has about 140,000 troops in Iraq, but combat operations will cease by the end of August 2010 under Obama's withdrawal plan, and all U.S. forces are due to leave the country by the end of 2011.


What I am waiting for is the day we kill off each other's cyborgs or hijack one another's artificial intelligence. Surely, General Patton would not be amused.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Moron Report #31: The Two-Faced Hypocrisy of Rep. Pete Olson

One of the oddities about conservative Republicans who work for the federal government, while they think the average person does not deserve unemployment benefits, they certainly have no problem living off our tax dollars for themselves. Enter Representative Pete Olson. You may have never heard of this first term protege of Tom DeLay because even political scientists have a life. Apparently, Pete is having some difficulties, but low and behold we the taxpayer will be subsidizing his little heart to make sure he can live another day to tell us to get our own health care coverage.

Congressman recovering from heart scare
Posted: 03:41 PM ET


WASHINGTON (CNN) – Rep. Pete Olson was “rushed” from Capitol Hill to the hospital Thursday, and doctors “equipped” him with a “dual chamber pacemaker,” the Texas Republican wrote in an e-mail to political supporters.

“While working out in the House gym, I got quite dizzy and fainted,” Olson said in the note sent Friday by his campaign committee. “After being rushed to George Washington University Hospital, it was determined that I had a condition called bradycardia, which is medical talk for a slow heart beat. Whatever they call it, it wasn't good and I don't recommend it.”

Olson added, “The docs have now equipped me with a dual chamber pacemaker to ensure my ticker doesn't pull such a stunt again. I feel fine and was ready to get back to work yesterday afternoon, but cooler heads have instructed I rest a little more.”

A cardiologist at George Washington University Hospital said that the “procedure went smoothly with no complications.”

“This is a common, often asymptomatic, condition and we expect the Congressman to resume his active lifestyle,” said Allen Solomon, cardiologist at the George Washington University Hospital and professor of Medicine.

The congressman is expected to return to work next week, the hospital said in the statement.


Also notice, Ron Paul, the hero of white gated community 20-somethings everywhere, accepts earmarks and pork barrel spending for his own district and uses federal dollars for his health care needs, while stating that any form of national health care coverage for the rest of us is a one-way ticket down the path of Communism.

If I knew enough people were reading this, I would propose a de-fund the right campaign, calling for the banishment of all government-sponsored health care for any member of Congress who opposes it for us. After all, Pete can go to an HMO. I am certain his preexisting condition will be treated with the utmost care and consideration from his sponsors in the private sector. After all, Pete, you were the fellow who opined, "I am opposed to universal health care. It doesn't work," but I suppose now you are wrong. It is working for you and at our expense.

And if Pete cannot find anyone to help him, we will just say the same to him as Rick Santelli does to the people losing their homes. Welcome to my hall of shame, Pete. I only wish the blood of those thousands of our fellow citizens who will die this year without what you are taking advantage for yourself, while opposing it for the rest of us, could be put on you, but I guess we will just have to wait to see if my tax dollars can keep you around for another term.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mass Shootings: Cause and Effect

What is it about mass shootings that bring out the silliest observations in news organizations? Yes, the shooters are always 'troubled' or 'seemingly normal.' That covers just about everyone. And we will, of course, get the obligatory, 'We cannot talk about the politics of these shootings, yet. It is just too recent and we need to mourn the loss of life,' all the while the same station (say, a Fox 'News') will subsequently air a story later that evening about how more guns might prevent crime. This is what we call discourse on guns in this country.

What is not discussed, at least in the aftermath of shootings in the US, is why we permit people (in many cases, never before criminals) to have such easy access to semiautomatic, military-style assault weapons to commit their crimes? Yes, I understand some gun folk will assert that these weapons are already out there and always will be. By that same logic, there has and will always be child pornography. That does not mean it is something which is a social good, should remain unrestricted or unbanned, even with the understanding that it cannot be perfectly prohibited in a society filled with narcissistic sociopaths who equate having an AR-15 to Madison's conceptualization of a gun, back in the day when they were muskets that took a fortnight to reload.

Notice, however, after mass shootings in Australia and Germany (countries with a tradition of gun ownership [contrary to the claims of the NRA who like to portray this as indigenous to the US or maybe Switzerland on a good day]), they further restricted access to the weapons that were used to mechanize the killings. The US is the only country on earth where people respond to mass shootings by saying that the solution is to arm kids, teachers, and bystanders to increase the chance of having more successful shootouts. If there is one issue that really separates the US from just about every country I have ever traveled, it is gun control, because people throughout this world have a hard time understanding our mentality on the issue.

For the longest time, I rationalized that it was because we had a Second Amendment, but the Second Amendment never became a political issue until the last few decades, before which it was given as much attention as the Third Amendment receives today (and has for the past 220 years). In fact, when the NRA started in the 19th century, it was a hunting club. I also used to think that maybe because we are a younger country and one founded under the gun (in our revolution and westward expansion), that this might explain our mindset on the issue. However, Canada and Australia have similar histories to the US, and even though they are still very much gun-oriented polities when compared to Japan, I have never met anyone from those countries who correlate walking the streets with a 50-cal with free expression.

Worse, the people who think that treading the streets with military weapons tend to be some of the most violent and hateful folk I have ever encountered in political debate, even worse than the anti-choice Christians or the baseball fans who think steroids are modern day tic tacs. I have only been obliquely threatened with death on three occasions in my life, and on two of them it was with people who thought I was the next Hitler for thinking semiautomatic weapons should be banned. Never mind that I own guns, was taught how to use them growing up, and actually see nothing wrong with gun ownership, or the use of such weapons in life-threatening situations. No, taking away the 'right' to freely purchase and own armor-piercing bullets or insisting on background checks at gun shows is the new totalitarianism to many of these people.

What interests me, other than the fact our body politic is filled with crazy people, is how do they get themselves to this point? We sometimes forget that the Second Amendment was not incorporated until this last year and only partly so (on municipal handgun bans). It was common in crime-ridden cities and towns historically in this country for law enforcement to ban people from possessing firearms. In fact, states restricted gun ownership all of the time, because the Second Amendment was only meant to apply to the federal government. Why was it not an issue until now? Is it simply a white right anger and fear of a government that they formally thought anyone was a terrorist for not supporting for the past eight years? Is it something much deeper, like a feeling of a loss of independence on the part of people in this country? To me, these are the kinds of questions that these stories should be delving into after these tragedies.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Losing My Religion

In a world of religious obscurantism, fewer Americans are calling ourselves religious. In fact, this is a trend across all 50 states, and it is no doubt a response to the rise of the religious right, as so-called "moderates" and mainline Protestants, along with many Catholics, have come to reject a politicized religion used for ideological purposes. It is a long overdue development to this country, one that will hopefully portend a return to the values of the Enlightenment many of this country's framers believed in and practiced.

America becoming less Christian, survey finds

(CNN) -- America is a less Christian nation than it was 20 years ago, and Christianity is not losing out to other religions, but primarily to a rejection of religion altogether, a survey published Monday found.

Seventy-five percent of Americans call themselves Christian, according to the American Religious Identification Survey from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1990, the figure was 86 percent.

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League said he thinks a radical shift towards individualism over the last quarter-century has a lot to do it.

"The three most dreaded words are thou shalt not," he told Lou Dobbs. "Notice they are not atheists -- they are saying I don't want to be told what to do with my life."

At the same time there has been an increase in the number of people expressing no religious affiliation.

The survey also found that "born-again" or "evangelical" Christianity is on the rise, while the percentage who belong to "mainline" congregations such as the Episcopal or Lutheran churches has fallen.

One in three Americans consider themselves evangelical, and the number of people associated with mega-churches has skyrocketed from less than 200,000 in 1990 to more than 8 million in the latest survey. Watch CNN report on new study

The rise in evangelical Christianity is contributing to the rejection of religion altogether by some Americans, said Mark Silk of Trinity College.

"In the 1990s, it really sunk in on the American public generally that there was a long-lasting 'religious right' connected to a political party, and that turned a lot of people the other way," he said of the link between the Republican Party and groups such as the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family. Video Watch author on mixing religion and politics »

"In an earlier time, people who would have been content to say, 'Well, I'm some kind of a Protestant,' now say 'Hell no, I won't go,'" he told CNN.

Silk also said the revelation that some Catholic priests had sexually abused children -- and senior figures in the church hierarchy had helped to hide it -- drove some Catholics away from religion.

And, he said, it is now more socially acceptable than it once was to admit having no religion.

"You're not declaring yourself a total pariah. The culture has changed in a way that makes it easier to say, 'No, I don't have a religion. Even in the past year, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama feel obliged to talk about 'those of no faith,' " he pointed out. Obama mentioned people without faith in his inaugural address in January, making him the first president to do so.

In the survey, one in five Americans said they have no religious identity or did not answer the question, and more than one in four said they do not expect to have a religious funeral.

The rise in what the survey authors call "nones" is the only trend reflected in every single state in the study, Silk said.

"We don't see anything else in the survey that is nationwide," he told CNN.

Still, Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, remained hopeful that people will return to their faith, noting there was a less dramatic decline in those affiliating themselves with a religion this decade than in the 1990s.

Perkins told Lou Dobbs he sees that decline easing, and he thinks soon religion will be an even greater part of people's lives.

"If this poll is taken next year will the outcome be different?" he asked. "As the economy goes downward, I think people are going to be driven to religion."

Other findings include:

• The percentage of Catholics in the United States has remained steady at about one in four since 1990, while the percentage of other Christians has plummeted from 60 percent to 50 percent.

• The percentage of Muslims has doubled since 1990, but remains statistically very small, only 0.3 percent in the original survey and 0.6 percent today.

• Mormons have remained steady as a percentage of the population, even as the number of people in the United States has grown. They make up 1.4 percent of the population.

• The number of Jews in the United States is falling if the category includes only those who define themselves as Jews religiously, but has remained the same if the category includes people who consider themselves ethnically Jewish.


The survey polled 54,461 Americans between February and November of last year. Pollsters conducted the research in both English and Spanish.

The survey is the third in a series, following polls in 1990 and 2001.


I can date my own fall from religion to my undergrad years, starting with my biology classes, and then culminating with my rejection of the hatred that seeped through the pages of the scriptures. My family was religiously traditional, but as Catholics we never stressed the scriptures the way fundamentalist Protestants do. When I started reading different versions of the Bible (the Catholic as well as several Protestant editions), it became obvious that this was nothing more than a product of someone's imagination written at a time when enslavement and genocide were orders of the day.

Ever wonder what happened to those who disagreed with Moses after he received the Ten Commandments? Or the fate of all the Elton Johns of ancient Judea? Or who was to blame for the fall of man? The Donohues and Family Research Councils are not fools. They know good and well the myths they follow are on their side. I simply came to a point in my life that I could no longer read the Bible and take it anymore seriously than Homer's Iliad. No one who is honest with himself can really think the earth is 6,000 years old, or that Jesus raised dead people and walked on water, never mind the notion that women's periods were the fault of Eve convincing Adam to eat some fruit.

When you add to it the politics of religious right, it makes the rejection of these antiquated beliefs nearly obligatory to anyone who views people as something better than evil sinners bound for the fiery pits of hell. Liberal Christians like to think they are staying the tide of this movement, but they are on the losing side of history. Religion in the modern era, since the industrial revolution, has been the global repository of reactionary political movements--movements based on the ideas of people who cannot accept living in a modern world and reject everything it has to offer, particularly the equality of the sexes, separation of religion from the politics of their society, and the materialism that sweeps aside the attention their faith once held over the masses who have grown accustomed to playing video games and listening to digital music players. In their world, there can be no compromise, because they see the world as being at war with them.

And that is the growing divide in this country, and I know that I am not alone in saying goodbye to the ancient world. Here is to hoping many future generations of empty churches and the death of ignorance and relegation of the tax exempt's fables to the fiction section of every remaining library in this country.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Shredding of CNBC

I have always enjoyed watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I am old enough to remember Jon when he was doing social commentary/stand-up back in the late '80s. Naturally, as a commie pinko, I can always appreciate a fellow progressive, but what makes The Daily Show so funny is the manner in which Jon knocks people down a peg who thoroughly deserve it.

Over the past several years, CNBC, as well as Fox Business, and most of the so-called business channels and shows have sat by and watched while our country was stolen out from beneath us by the people they cover. I will never forget the manner in which Enron tried to counter Bethany McLean's piece on the company's overpriced stock, presaging the collapse of the company by the malefactors who purposely ran it into the ground. Business reporting is not unlike sports reporting. You are expected to be a water carrier for who you are covering, with the understanding that if you are not then there will be no future access for the reporter or anchor.

Just watch this now classic piece to see the consequences of this form of 'journalism.'

The irony in all this is that it takes a fake news show to tell the truth and do the job of an entire channel and network of people who have no clue as to what they are doing.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Evils of Religion: The Catholic Church and Rape

Notice, the same Catholic Church just recently un-excommunicated a bishop who claims there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, but if you are a little girl who is repeatedly raped by your stepfather, impregnated by the rape, and have an abortion (not the least since she is 9 years old and even giving birth could kill or maim her), the supportive family, nurses, and doctors (but not the stepfather who raped the girl) are to be excommunicated from the Church.

You see, the father is going to be denied a new child to sexually assault or offer up to the priests for future molestation. Yet one more reason why my old Church should be dissolved, its houses of worship dismembered brick by brick, and the remains turned into a memorial for all of its victims.

Rape row sparks excommunications

By Gary Duffy

BBC News, Sao Paulo

A Brazilian archbishop says all those who helped a child rape victim secure an abortion are to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

The girl, aged nine, who lives in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, became pregnant with twins.

It is alleged that she had been sexually assaulted over a number of years by her stepfather.

The excommunication applies to the child's mother and the doctors involved in the procedure.

The pregnancy was terminated on Wednesday.

Abortion is only permitted in Brazil in cases of rape and where the mother's life is at risk and doctors say the girl's case met both these conditions.

Police believe that the girl at the centre of the case had been sexually abused by her step-father since she was six years old.

The fact that she was pregnant with twins was only discovered after she was taken to hospital in Pernambuco complaining of stomach pains.

Her stepfather was arrested last week, allegedly as he tried to escape to another region of the country.

He is also suspected of abusing the girl's physically handicapped older sister who is now 14.

Intervention bid

The Catholic Church tried to intervene to prevent the abortion going ahead but the procedure was carried out on Wednesday.

Now a Church spokesman says all those involved, including the child's mother and the doctors, are to be excommunicated.

The Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, told Brazil's TV Globo that the law of God was above any human law.

He said the excommunication would not apply to the child because of her age, but would affect all those who ensured the abortion was carried out.

However, doctors at the hospital said they had to take account of the welfare of the girl, and that she was so small that her uterus did not have the ability to contain one child let alone two.

While the action of the Church in opposing an abortion for a young rape victim is not unprecedented, it has attracted criticism from women's rights groups in Brazil.


Think of this the next time someone tells you about Lent.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why George W. Bush Should Be Prosecuted

It was not enough to try to impeach George Bush, a process that was undermined by the Congressional Democratic leadership, obsessed with wanting to appear bipartisan. The release of memos this past week, exhibiting for all to see the crimes committed against our republic by the Bush Administration would and should land anyone in a position of authority in prison. Amongst his violations of our Constitution, our President (with legal lackeys in tow) considered it perfectly acceptable to use executive orders to obtain the unilateral right to order American citizens arrested and jailed indefinitely without charge, have citizens monitored/wiretapped by federal law enforcement without so much as a court order, and allowed our esteemed members from Langley to torture people and then destroy the evidence to avoid future prosecution.

The Yoo-Bybee Memoranda

Blueprints for a Police State

By Marjorie Cohn

Seven newly released memos from the Bush Justice Department reveal a concerted strategy to cloak the President with power to override the Constitution. The memos provide “legal” rationales for the President to suspend freedom of speech and press; order warrantless searches and seizures, including wiretaps of U.S. citizens; lock up U.S. citizens indefinitely in the United States without criminal charges; send suspected terrorists to other countries where they will likely be tortured; and unilaterally abrogate treaties. According to the reasoning in the memos, Congress has no role to check and balance the executive. That is the definition of a police state.

Who wrote these memos? All but one were crafted in whole or in part by the infamous John Yoo and Jay Bybee, authors of the so-called “torture memos” that redefined torture much more narrowly than the U.S. definition of torture, and counseled the President how to torture and get away with it. In one memo, Yoo said the Justice Department would not enforce U.S. laws against torture, assault, maiming and stalking, in the detention and interrogation of enemy combatants.

What does the federal maiming statute prohibit? It makes it a crime for someone "with the intent to torture, maim, or disfigure" to "cut, bite, or slit the nose, ear or lip, or cut out or disable the tongue, or put out or destroy an eye, or cut off or disable a limb or any member of another person." It further prohibits individuals from "throwing or pouring upon another person any scalding water, corrosive acid, or caustic substance" with like intent.

The two torture memos were later withdrawn after they became public because their legal reasoning was clearly defective. But they remained in effect long enough to authorize the torture and abuse of many prisoners in U.S. custody.

The seven memos just made public were also eventually disavowed, several years after they were written. Steven Bradbury, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General in Bush’s Department of Justice, issued two disclaimer memos – on October 6, 2008 and January 15, 2009 – that said the assertions in those seven memos did “not reflect the current views of this Office.” Why Bradbury waited until Bush was almost out of office to issue the disclaimers remains a mystery. Some speculate that Bradbury, knowing the new administration would likely release the memos, was trying to cover his backside.

Indeed, Yoo, Bybee and Bradbury are the three former Justice Department lawyers that the Office of Professional Responsibility singled out for criticism in its still unreleased report. The OPR could refer these lawyers for state bar discipline or even recommend criminal charges against them.

In his memos, Yoo justified giving unchecked authority to the President because the United States was in a “state of armed conflict.” Yoo wrote, “First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully.” Yoo made the preposterous argument that since deadly force could legitimately be used in self-defense in criminal cases, the President could suspend the Fourth Amendment because privacy rights are less serious than protection from the use of deadly force.

Bybee wrote in one of the memos that nothing can stop the President from sending al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners captured overseas to third countries, as long as he doesn’t intend for them to be tortured. But the Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a party, says that no country can expel, return or extradite a person to another country “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” Bybee claimed the Torture Convention didn’t apply extraterritorially, a proposition roundly debunked by reputable scholars. The Bush administration reportedly engaged in this practice of extraordinary rendition 100 to 150 times as of March 2005.

The same day that Attorney General Eric Holder released the memos, the government revealed that the CIA had destroyed 92 videotapes of harsh interrogations of Abu Zubaida and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, both of whom were subjected to waterboarding. The memo that authorized the CIA to waterboard, written the same day as one of Yoo/Bybee’s torture memos, has not yet been released.

Bush insisted that Zubaida was a dangerous terrorist, in spite of the contention of one of the FBI’s leading al Qaeda experts that Zubaida was schizophrenic, a bit player in the organization. Under torture, Zubaida admitted to everything under the sun – his information was virtually worthless.

There are more memos yet to be released. They will invariably implicate Bush officials and lawyers in the commission of torture, illegal surveillance, extraordinary rendition, and other violations of the law.

Meanwhile, John Yoo remains on the faculty of Berkeley Law School and Jay Bybee is a federal judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. These men, who advised Bush on how to create a police state, should be investigated, prosecuted, and disbarred. Yoo should be fired and Bybee impeached.

Marjorie Cohn is president of the National Lawyers Guild and author of Cowboy Republic.


By any standard, these are gross violations of our Constitution and warranting an arrest and prosecution, never mind the willful murder of over 4,000 of our countrymen and women, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, through a war of aggression, and one that was based on a lie. If only Washington and Madison could see what has become of their legacy today.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

It Only Took an Apple

Perverting religious people with one decadent, Satanic listening device filled with versed tongued odes to Sodom and Gomorrah at a time...

Afghan tech boom: Mullah embraces iPhone

By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer Jason Straziuso, Associated Press Writer Tue Mar 3, 3:24 pm ET

KABUL – Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef is a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. He spent almost four years in Guantanamo. He wears a black turban, has a thick beard — and is never without his Apple iPhone.

The ultra-conservative Taliban banned modern technology like the Internet and TV during its harsh 1996-2001 rule, but those items have boomed in Afghanistan since the regime's 2001 ouster, helping to bring the country into the 21st century.

Zaeef, who reconciled with the Afghan government after being released from U.S. custody, says he uses his iPhone to surf the Internet and find difficult locations, employing the built-in GPS. He even checks his bank account balance online.

"It's easy and modern and I love it," Zaeef said as he pinched and pulled his fingers across the iPhone's touch screen last week. "This is necessary in the world today. People want to progress."

Beyond making life easier, some say the country's embrace of technology could help break the cycle of 30 years of relentless warfare. It puts at the tip of a finger many things that were strictly outlawed by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar — music, movies, pictures of people and games like chess.

Young Afghans see the world differently from older Afghans because of their use of the Internet and mobile phones, and their participation in sports, said Shukria Barakzai, a female lawmaker and former newspaper editor.

Afghanistan's youth are not caught up in "the old circle of war," she said. "They are engaging with the rest of the world. That's why technology is so important for Afghanistan."

As an example she uses the popular television show Afghan Star, a version of the American Idol-style singing contest, which draws millions of viewers each week, both young and old. Viewers vote for a winner by text messaging, helping to promote democratic practices, she said.

Eight years ago Afghanistan had only a few hundred cell phone users, mostly members of the Taliban government. Today it has more than 8 million, meaning roughly one in four Afghans uses a mobile phone, according to government figures.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in a speech earlier this year that Afghanistan was "in the Middle Ages" when the Taliban was toppled. Today, he said, half the country is at peace and access to education and health care are up 10-fold.

"When I saw an Afghan fellow pull out his Apple iPhone in Kabul, while I was talking on my 5-year-old NATO mobile, I saw another symbol of progress," he said of a recent trip to Afghanistan.

The Afghan capital has one gleaming mall, with glass elevators and escalators and a rare European-style coffee shop. Electronic stores stocked with GPS units, Sony PlayStations, flat screen TVs and iPods fill the shopping center.

Faridullah, the owner of an electronics store who like many Afghans goes by one name, said he sells about four iPhones a month to wealthy Afghans. The price in Kabul has dropped from $1,100 one month ago to about $800 today, he said.

"The country is really progressing now. Nine years ago the country didn't know about mobile phones. We can't compare today to nine years ago," he said. "It's like a custom now in Afghanistan that even if someone doesn't have enough money to eat he'll still carry an expensive cell phone."

The nation's leading mobile phone company, Roshan, added 1 million customers between June and early February, when it surpassed 3 million users. Roshan offers mobile banking services so users can send money to others through their phones, and it began offering Blackberry service in August, the first company in Afghanistan to do so.

Still, the average annual income in Afghanistan is just $800, so shop owners must target the ultra-wealthy and foreigners. Most Afghans never have heard of an iPhone, and Roshan reaches only 56 percent of the population.

"It's still pretty expensive," Jawid, the owner of another electronics store, said of iPhones and other modern gadgets. "The problem is the economy, otherwise people are very interested in the new technologies."

Many shops in Kabul sell a Chinese-made iPhone copy that shop owners say can do most things a real iPhone can. The fake sells for $300. "People use the Internet on it and it goes for a reasonable price," Orash said.

Zaeef, the former Taliban official, said he has always been interested in technology despite his militant links. He used a laptop and satellite phone to access the Internet in the late 1990s, and now he surfs the Web an hour a day, he said.

Zaeef said he tried to persuade top Taliban officials to let Afghans have more access to modern electronics in the late 1990s, and he noted that the Taliban itself now embraces technology. Militants use remote control devices to set off roadside bombs, and they produce high-quality videos of attacks that they post on militant Web sites.

The Taliban movement is highly fractured and is essentially a loose knitting of commanders who wield ultimate authority in their regions. As a result, some commanders have relaxed strict social rules against technology and now allow TVs and music. But others have ripped down satellites from homes and thrown out TVs from village barber shops and tea houses.

"All the time with the technology I tried to get them to investigate about the negative and the positive. I thought the positive outweighed the negative," he said. "I tried, but unfortunately I was not successful."



There is one common theme in this story. Apple products are overpriced everywhere. And to think, this is all it took. It sort of reminds me of that French writer several years ago who advocated undermining Islamic fundamentalism by dropping bikinis and lingerie on Afghanistan. Not that this will ever work, of course, and buying out one deluded mullah ready to make peace with his ex-jailers makes you wonder how much of what these folk say is a product of what they truly think. I suppose we will never know for sure. Then again, if he had a Zune player, Zaeef might well revert to advocating suicide bombings (as I almost did the first time mine went haywire and ultimately zapped itself into early retirement). I never thought I would write this, but I guess we have something to be thankful for Steve Jobs after all.