Friday, June 30, 2006

The Anti-Librarian

The head librarian at San Antonio's University of the Incarnate Word has canceled the college's subscription to the New York Times "to protest articles exposing a secret government program that monitors international financial transactions in the hunt for terrorists."

"Since no one elected the New York Times to determine national security policy, the only action I know to register protest for their irresponsible action (treason?) is to withdraw support of their operations by canceling our subscription as many others are doing," said Mendell D. Morgan, Jr., UIW's dean of library services. "If enough do perhaps they will get the point."

Now, I can imagine some huffy dean of political science or a fat-cat benefactor demanding such a thing, but a librarian? Canceling a subscription might be a fairly civil form of protest, and it's certainly within any librarian's rights to do it, but isn't it only about a step-and-a-half from book-burning? When did librarians begin to morph into reactionary censors? To me, that's what makes this little protest a bigger deal.

And nobody elected the New York Times or The Beaumont Enterprise to determine whether Americans should be able to make their own decisions based upon good, complete information either, but that's central to any newspaper's mission. The librarian's lame logic disregards that he is able to speak so freely largely because newspapers have vigilantly defended -- at great cost -- his right to do it. I assure you, the government would have curbed your right to speak long ago without a vigorous press.

Also today, the U.S. House has passed a resolution condemning the media. (Don't you wonder how bribery suspect Rep. William Jefferson voted on that one?) Isn't there something a little hypocritical about Republicans condemning secret information being revealed by a newspaper ... even as high-ranking White House figures face indictment for purposely leaking secret information? Another reason why putting your absolute faith in government might be unwise.

Newspapers have done more to protect libraries (and their readers) than Congress or the White House ever did. When the same government lustily sought freedom to fish around in library and bookstore patrons' records, newspapers rose to defend readers' rights.

The revelation of the government's surveillance of international banking is really just a tempest in a teapot, and I'd imagine it delights terrorists everywhere. Do you really think they didn't ASSUME their money transactions were being watched? Smaller cells and odd-shot brigands might not have been so smart, but our government hasn't yet proven the program actually has paid off. They say "Trust us" and too many people do.

The Bush Administration has been marked by extraordinary secrecy. That's not a bad thing in war-time, but common Americans have too often been their target. Is government essentially evil? No, but it has proven over and over that it will act first for its own enrichment, and only later for yours. In the halls of government, common people are too often considered the barbarians at the gate, not the noble soul of democracy.

The librarian's personal feelings are just that, personal. But when he takes steps -- like the freakish Ward Churchill on the other side -- to limit a student's access to information to make decisions for himself, he's no longer an educator, but a common brown-shirt.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

LA Times' editor explains

Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles Times, explained in today's editions why his paper (among a few others) ran a story about the federal government's secret surveillance of international banking transactions. As some in government call for investigations of the "treasonous" newspapers that ran the story, his explanation sheds some valuable light on the role of the press in a free society.


Why we ran the bank story

MANY READERS have been sharply critical of our decision to publish an article Friday on the U.S. Treasury Department's program to secretly monitor worldwide money transfers in an effort to track terrorist financing.They have sent me sincere and powerful expressions of their disappointment in our newspaper, and they deserve an equally thoughtful and honest response.

The decision to publish this article was not one we took lightly. We considered very seriously the government's assertion that these disclosures could cause difficulties for counterterrorism programs. And we weighed that assertion against the fact that there is an intense and ongoing public debate about whether surveillance programs like these pose a serious threat to civil liberties.

We sometimes withhold information when we believe that reporting it would threaten a life. In this case, we believed, based on our talks with many people in the government and on our own reporting, that the information on the Treasury Department's program did not pose that threat. Nor did the government give us any strong evidence that the information would thwart true terrorism inquiries.

In fact, a close read of the article shows that some in the government believe that the program is ineffective in fighting terrorism.In the end, we felt that the legitimate public interest in this program outweighed the potential cost to counterterrorism efforts.Some readers have seen our decision to publish this story as an attack on the Bush administration and an attempt to undermine the war on terror.

We are not out to get the president. This newspaper has done much hard-hitting reporting on terrorism, from around the world, often at substantial risk to our reporters. We have exposed terrorist cells and led the way in exposing the work of terrorists.

We devoted a reporter to covering Al Qaeda's role in world terrorism in the months before 9/11. I know, because I made the assignment. But we also have an obligation to cover the government, with its tremendous power, and to offer information about its activities so citizens can make their own decisions.

That's the role of the press in our democracy. The founders of the nation actually gave us that role, and instructed us to follow it, no matter the cost or how much we are criticized. Thomas Jefferson said, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." That's the edict we followed.This was a tough call for me, as I'm sure it was for the editors of other papers that chose to publish articles on the subject.

But history tells us over and over that the nation's founders were right in pushing the press into this role. President Kennedy persuaded the press not to report the Bay of Pigs planning. He later said he regretted this, that he might have called it off had someone exposed it.

History has taught us that the government is not always being honest when it cites secrecy as a reason not to publish. No one believes, in retrospect, that there was any true reason to withhold the Pentagon Papers, although the government fought vigorously to keep them from being published by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

As Justice Hugo Black put it in that case: "The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic."

I don't expect all of our readers to agree with my call. But understand that it was one taken with serious reflection and supported by much history.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Billions and billions and billions ...

Billionaire investor Warren Buffet has just announced he'll donate most of his wealth -- about $37 billion -- to various charities, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

And the interim chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder plans to announce at 2 p.m. today whether CU will fire ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill. UPDATE: CU has notified Churchill of its intention to fire him, as of 3 p.m. Central.

See? The news isn't always bad.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: Time, place ... and memory

Two years ago, Steve Yarbrough woke up the morning after Christmas in his father’s house in the small town of Indianola, Miss. After a long day’s journey, he and his daughter fell asleep in another small town that haunts his fiction: Archer City, Texas.

Indianola is Yarbrough’s hometown; Archer City is Larry McMurtry’s. Indianola has been transmogrified in Yarbrough’s body of work into fictional Loring, Miss.; Archer City casts its bleak shadow as Thalia, Texas, where McMurtry unreels “The Last Picture Show.”

These two towns (and their doppelgangers) vary slightly but occupy the same landscape in Yarbrough’s imagination. Although he sometimes wonders if he’d have become a novelist at all if he had not read “The Last Picture Show” in high school, his seventh novel, “The End of California” (Knopf, 320 pages, $23.95), leaves no doubt about McMurtry’s influence – and further cements Yarbrough’s reputation as one of the brightest contemporary Southern-lit writers since Pat Conroy.

“The End of California” is, in the same breath, a story of homecoming and dislocation. Like McMurtry’s Thalia, Loring is a disheartened and disheartening place where everybody knows your secrets and ambition equals an escape plan.

Twenty-five years ago, high school football star Pete Barrington escaped to California and never looked back -- that is, until scandal rocks his medical practice. He finds sanctuary back home in Loring, where he opens a new practice, renews old friendships and releases old ghosts while his betrayed wife and petulant daughter adjust to the foreign-ness of rural Mississippi.

But Barrington’s homecoming scrapes open wounds, too. Piggly Wiggly manager Alan DePoyster’s own painful past begins a slow, toxic ooze into the present. His small-town Southern comfort is the warm embrace of his own faith -- in God, his family and in his community – and Barrington has always represented a kind of venal success which threatens all that is good and pure. While DePoyster is exceedingly faithful, he’s not blind:

“He waited in his pew, paging through the church bulletin to avoid people’s glances,” Yarbrough writes. “He had never ceased to be bothered that folks behaved differently in church than they did anywhere else. Nobody here, if they saw him at Wal-Mart Tuesday evening, would call him Brother Alan or Brother DePoyster, as all of them would now if their gazes happened to meet.”

Oh, and there’s the delicate issue of Pete Barrington’s teen-age fling with DePoyster’s lecherous mom. It underlies every impulse and that’s where their conflict hinges. It’s also where the parallels with “The Last Picture Show” are most palpable. Imagine the unfolding story if Sonny Crawford suddenly fell into Thalia -- and Ruth Popper’s family’s life -- 25 years after the Royal Theater showed its last movie.

But “The End of California” is no knock-off of McMurtry’s atmospheric novel. Yarbrough paints an evocative portrait of a place and people (and sustains them over time and several books) like a fellow Mississippian, William Faulkner. The Barrington and DePoyster families are every bit as complex as Faulkner’s Snopeses and Compsons, rendered in a clear, contemporary narrative that unfolds in the sinewy prose that has marked Yarbrough’s earlier work.

In fact, Yarbrough was a 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist for “Prisoners of War,” a richly drawn novel about people on both sides of a World War II POW camp in Mississippi. Its sophisticated, subtle rhythms echo in “The End of California,” more complex in both its structure and concept without Faulkner’s gothic entanglements.

Yarbrough, a former writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi, now teaches creative writing at California State University in Fresno. That’s a long way from complex little Indianola, Miss. (Pop. 12,055), the birthplace of both bluesman B.B. King and the Citizens’ Council, or white-collar Klan. Now 49, he hasn’t lived there since he was 21 and he doesn’t want to, but he clearly still feels affection for the place. They belong to each other.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Terry Tafoya and Ward Churchill

Terry Tafoya uses his Indian blood and Indian mythology as a popular lecturer on mental health issues, and in several appointments at well-known institutions. Unfortunately, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has found, Tafoya's Indian blood is questionably thin, his academic record elusive and, worse, his qualifications in psychology are troublesome.

The P-I's well-researched front-page piece by Ruth Teichroeb explains how the charismatic Tafoya jets around the U.S. and Canada appearing at up to 100 events a year -- most of them paid at least in part by public dollars. He typically commands fees of up to $3,000 plus expenses ... all based on dubious claims (among others) that he was raised on the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico (he wasn't), has a Ph.D. in psychology (he doesn't) and a life story that bears little resemblance to reality.

If this reminds you of University of Colorado provocateur Ward Churchill, another dubious storyteller, you're not alone. His own lineage has never been fully explained, and his academic record is clearly cockeyed. His qualifications to teach are certainly doubtful.

I'm wondering: What would make a non-Indian want to fib about his Indian-ness? Or is it just a minor lie among many others? Do the rest of us somehow give more weight to the opinions and teachings of Indians just because they claim Native American blood flows in their veins? Are we so shallow?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Missing soldiers found 'slaughtered'

The mutilated corpses of two young American soldiers were found today in Iraq. According to the Associated Press, "an Iraqi official said Tuesday the men were 'killed in a barbaric way.' Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for killing the soldiers, and said the successor to slain terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had 'slaughtered' them."

Probably just getting even with us for putting the Koran on a toilet at Gitmo. Thank God for the Geneva Conventions.

The atrocities allegedly committed by American soldiers against innocent Iraqi civilians are intolerable. And we should prosecute any offenses to the fullest extent of our law. We are not animals.

But while we worry about whether captive terror suspects are comfortable and well-fed -- and never embarrassed or made angry -- their buddies are disemboweling, beheading and/or mortally torturing their prisoners-of-war.

All wars have had their atrocities. Both sides have failed to play by the rules at some time. That's the reality we must accept when we're at war. We needn't relish the idea of wholesale slaughter of innocents, and we should prosecute it where we find it, but we probably spend too much time quibbling about creature comforts at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and not enough decrying the butchery on the other side.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

FEMA pimped my ride

For months after Hurricane Rita humbled Southeast Texas, we heard whispered rumors that sounded too much like urban legends as told to my cousin's boyfriend's uncle's barber: FEMA checks and debit cards were being used to buy liposuction, boats, vacations, parties that lasted for weeks, jewelry, electronics, new and improved vehicles and more. We heard one story in several versions: How members of a large, extended family that lived in one dilapidated little bungalow EACH claimed FEMA's $2,000 emergency relief, and the household was suddenly $20,000 to $30,000 richer.

The rumors were hard to nail down, and frankly, many had a racist tone, so there was seldom any proof offered as we gathered ourselves for the bigger daily tasks of covering a storm-wracked community.

Now, Congress' General Accounting Office (GAO) has revealed that as much as $1.4 BILLION of FEMA's disaster-relief money for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was spent on all those things ... and even more astounding stuff. (Read the GAO abstract here) That's roughly $1 out of every $6 going to fraud. Reports the Los Angeles Times:
"A Texas man filed 19 applications and used the money for a sex-change operation. Elsewhere in Texas, a recipient used FEMA money to buy a diamond ring and other jewelry worth $3,700. FEMA gave an individual $2,358 in rental assistance while paying an additional $8,000 so that same person could stay at a Hawaii hotel for more than two months. FEMA funds purchased a $2,200 weeklong vacation in the Dominican Republic and five season tickets to the New Orleans Saints. In Houston, federal money was used to buy sexual enhancement products and hire a divorce lawyer. And thanks to FEMA, someone in Santa Monica purchased $300 worth of "Girls Gone Wild" sex videos."

The federal government can't afford hurricanes even when all of its money is spent wisely. This fraud is not only a affront to taxpayers, it's criminal. There's little hope the money can be returned, but the creeps who perpetrated their greedy schemes on us should pay. Jail time would be approrpiate in many of these instances (which, of course, forces taxpayers to pay again, but with the slight satisfaction of retribution.)

One fear is that these criminal tendencies will make FEMA even more tentative in future emergencies, exactly the opposite response we want from FEMA. One hopes FEMA has adopted new filters to make sure they are not defrauded further, but frankly, their responses to the GAO report suggest no such sea-change is imminent. So taxpayers either continue to be ripped off, or FEMA merely becomes slower as its only effort at repair.

Oh, maybe better than jail would be to sentence these cretins to a life of community service, maybe on post-hurricane clean-up crews at minimum wage.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

BYU dumps professor who disagreed, but ...

A professor at the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University has been fired because he wrote an op-ed column in the Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune saying the Mormon Church's opposition to gay marriage -- and support of a constitutional amendment banning it -- was wrong. On June 4, part-time philosophy prof Jeffrey Nielsen's newspaper column said, in part:

"I believe opposing gay marriage and seeking a constitutional amendment against it is immoral."

A few days later, he got a letter from his boss: "In accordance with the order of the church, we do not consider it our responsibility to correct, contradict or dismiss official pronouncements of the church. ...Since you have chosen to contradict and oppose the church in an area of great concern to church leaders, and to do so in a public forum, we will not rehire you after the current term is over."

Assuming that Nielsen wasn't spouting propaganda in the classroom, this firing is at least a moral violation of free speech, if not a legal one. He expressed an opposing view off-campus -- as is his inalienable right to do -- and an extremely draconian church landed on him with its considerable weight.

Mormons aren't jihadists, but sometimes they act (and react) with the same intolerance. They control the State of Utah and many of its social, cultural and economic affairs. Like America itself, if the inflexible and corporate Church of Latter-day Saints can't absorb dissent on a clearly divisive issue that will ultimately not cost anyone's life or liberty, it's a house of cards.

(But it gets better ... see the next posting....)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Ward Churchill is still not fired

The University of Colorado professor who praised the Sept. 1 murder of ordinary Americans inside the World Trade Center -- he compared them to Nazis -- is still a professor in Boulder. But a university committee today recommended that Churchill be fired because of "repeated and deliberate" infractions of scholarship ethics and rules.

In fact, Churchill's free speech was never an issue. The university's analysts have focused entirely on the self-proclaimed Native American activist's academic papers, and found a load of lies, plagiarism and other misconduct. Some have even found odd inconsistencies in how quickly he was given tenure, effectively giving him a job for life.

Top university officials must now decided what to do with this loud-mouthed poseur whose Indian roots have proven questionable, at best. If the final decision is to dump him from the faculty at CU, Churchill has vowed to sue ... repeatedly.

Churchill's firing is long overdue. Not for his outrageous speech (which I find offensive but not particularly convincing) but for his lack of academic ethics. He's been a stain on CU and on Colorado in general. He's no genuine academic, but instead merely one of those bomb-throwers who use classrooms to foist his twisted manifestos on impressionable kids (many of whom rally to his defense against the Forces of Evil, whoever they are.) He's no more interested in offering alternate views than the Nazis he casually invokes. He's a caricature of a real iconoclast, preferring shock-and-awe (and often anonymous) scatology to intelligent debate.
And I'd even chip in to help buy him a keen retirement home in one of those Islamist-only communities in the south of Iran.

Friday, June 09, 2006

What do you do with Zarqawi's corpse?

Today, a plaque was placed at the site of Hitler's Berlin bunker -- and his death -- by German historians. Some people complained that neo-Nazis might now use the site as a shrine to one of the great criminals of all times. More than 60 years later, we worry about Hitler's symbolism.

Ironically, today we also hold the corpse of Musab al-Zarqawi. Presuming we will not desecrate him any further than dropping two 500-pound bombs on him, how does one dispose of the body of terrorism's great symbols? If you give him back to his people his symbolism will transcend his mortal coil. If you toss him in a dumpster, it doesn't say much about who we are.

What should be done with a monster's corpse?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Zarqawi meets his Virgins

I've never felt truly comfortable celebrating a death, but today I'll make an exception. May Musab al-Zarqawi rest in pieces. The bottom of my shoe is too good for him.

He wasn't a "worthy" enemy. He was an efficient, insane coward. I'll trust that he believed in his perverse vision, but so do serial killers, rapists and child molesters. He was without honor, without a country, without conscience ... and now, without most of his parts connected.

I abhor that American soldiers would commit any atrocity, and I wish fervently that justice is done in Haditha. But let's not lose sight of the kind of enemy we face. We should strive beyond human endurance to avoid being like them, but we mustn't let their inhumanity engulf our sensitivity. Zarqawi and his ilk yearn to kill every American man, woman and child and are unbound by any rules of engagement. Our prosecution of this war simply cannot be decent at every turn.

The explosive death of Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist, is good news. It eviscerated him, but it's unlikely to eviscerate the radical Islamist movement, even if we scrape Osama and his lieutenants from the face of the Earth, too.

But, gosh, today feels better without Musab to kick around.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Crime news as a cultural ink-blot

A happy ending to a frightening story: The sickly infant abducted in Lubbock, Texas, earlier this week has been found and reunited with her mother. A 33-year-old woman has been arrested.

Much has been made -- in the blogosphere and mainstream media -- about the perceived tendency by news reporters to focus on missing or murdered white women and children while ignoring missing or murdered women and children of color. In this case, the baby was Hispanic, born to a single Hispanic mother, but is it possible the media are not color-blind in such cases? Can all the headlines be condensed to "Beautiful White Woman Murdered In Sex-Related Slaying"?

Proponents of this position herald Natalee Holloway, Nicole Brown-Simpson, Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson and Jennifer Wilbanks as examples of the national-media bias. And it's hard to hold up examples of women of color in similar circumstances. But is it truly a matter of racial bias ... or possibly just the need of the national media to have a story with a special emotional twist?

The American Society of Newspaper Editors estimates 13 percent of journalists at newspapers are minorities (including Hispanics). In TV newsrooms, minorities make up about 22% of the workforce, according to the Radio-Television News Directors Association. About 32% of the U.S. population is non-white or Hispanic. (USA Today, 6/15/05) Does that lead to a bias in story choices?

But not every "white woman in peril" story makes the front page of the NY Times or prime-time CNN, so immediately a viewer/reader must ask what makes these cases special? I propose, modestly, it's not color but the uniqueness of the case. The more mystery and intrigue, the higher the news value.

As the managing editor of a mid-sized daily newspaper, I assure readers that the color of the victim is of absolutely no importance to news decisions, except in crimes where race is central ... I'm more interested in the extraordinary circumstances. The 10th fatal mugging at a midnight subway platform by a gangster is less intriguing than the discovery of a grandmother's corpse in a public park and the realization that her 4 grandchildren are now missing. Which would you put on the front page?

Here's another twist you won't hear about: Men also get ignored generally in such cases. FBI statistics show men are more likely than women to be reported as missing, and that blacks make up a disproportionately large segment of the victims. On May 1. 2005, there were 25,389 men in the FBI's database of active missing persons cases, and 22,200 cases of women. Blacks accounted for 13,860 cases, vs. 29,383 whites. (USA Today, 6/15/05)

Should men rise up and demand equal attention from Nancy Grace or Greta van Susteren? Why is there no hue and cry to probe crimes against men as much as we apparently probe crimes against pretty, white women?

Facts have no moral quality, only what we project upon them.

Crime news is like a cultural ink-blot test, in which society looks at a set of insensate, numb facts and projects its own history, fears, impatience, insolence, clemency, insecurities, dreams — and nightmares — upon those facts.

In theory, we are not really describing the ink blots, but something inside ourselves. And what’s inside is every fairy-tale monster: A brutal ogre, a bloodthirsty werewolf, an elegant vampire, a bullying giant, a scheming devil, a predatory wolf, a sneering troll, or maybe just an abusive step-mother.

The archetypes of our fears have trickled into every heart. And when a crime captures the public’s imagination before a trial, the great majority of citizens are already projecting the monsters of our collective mythology onto the suspects.

And that's a bigger part of choosing the stories on the front page than the color of the victims.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Honk if you have IED ...

Maybe 1 of every 20 of us suffers from a newly named malady, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or IED -- uncontrollably angry outbursts that erupt as road rage, spousal abuse or other unjustifiable "severe transgressions," according to researchers from Harvard and the University of Chicago. AP reports:
Mental health research has concentrated on such problems as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, panic attacks and substance abuse. Instead of being considered a mental health problem, anger was thought to be a matter of willpower. But new brain imaging studies show that people with IED have abnormal brain signaling in areas that control anger responses, Coccaro said. When people with rage disorder are shown pictures of people with angry faces, their amygdala lights up far more than is seen in healthy subjects. The amygdala, deep in the center of the brain, governs emotional responses to threats.

How ironic that this new disorder shares an acronym with the Iraqi roadside booby trap known as an "IED."

How long before we see IED used as a defense in a murder trial, or simply listed among the many protected maladies in the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Michael Moore lied? Say it ain't so

So now a disabled American vet has sued filmmaker Michael Moore for $85 million, saying TV clips Moore snatched were used without his permission in the grossly distorted anti-war documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "gave a false impression that he opposed the war," according to Reuters wire service.

Oh my gosh. You mean that film might have been misleading? Michael Moore might have been pursuing personal dogma, not truth? God, what's next, Anna Nicole Smith turns up pregnant?

I should have known something was amiss when "Fahrenheit"'s final credits contained a disclaimer that said "no actual facts were used in the making of this movie."