Friday, May 22, 2009

Military Contractor Blackwater, AKA Xe, in Trouble Again

The private contracting firm of Blackwater, now known as Xe, has had a number of problems since the Bush administration began the practice of hiring mercenaries under the rubric of private contractors. Having been ejected from Iraq, Blackwater's problems this time are in Afghanistan. As usual, stories involving Blackwater seem to involve contradictions. Here's CNN's version of the Blackwater shooting incident:
One of three Afghan civilians wounded when U.S. contractors shot at them in an incident in early May died of his wounds Sunday, according to U.S. military officials in Afghanistan.

A second Afghan civilian remains in serious condition, and the third person wounded was treated and released from a Kabul hospital, according to the U.S. military in Kabul.


After the shooting, the men claimed they were being held against their will by their former employer, Paravant, in Kabul. Paravant's parent company, Xe, said the men were not being held against their will. It said the U.S. military told the company to instruct the men to stay as the investigation progressed.

The U.S. military denied the men were being asked to stay because of the investigation...

The controversy continues over the shooting incident and who authorized what. Here's the AP story:
Two men who worked for the security firm formerly known as Blackwater say the company issued weapons to their employees in Afghanistan despite the military prohibiting workers from carrying guns.

The employees were military trainers apparently allowed to use weapons during training but not otherwise because of restrictions placed on Blackwater by the military. The restrictions are a clear response to repeated incidents by private contractors, Blackwater included.

At the management level, Blackwater's reputation for integrity is not good. It was Blackwater whose contractors were killed by insurgents in an ugly 2004 incident in Fallujah after being warned by the military to use a different route. Like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush, Blackwater's executives have a knack for revising history. Here's part of a 2007 story from Bloomberg:
In a 10-page report delivered yesterday to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Blackwater said its security guards couldn't have prevented the deaths of four Americans in an attack in Fallujah at an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps checkpoint. The videotaped brutality of the incident sparked a U.S. military offensive.

However, in the same news story, we find a different version after investigations by others:
Committee Chairman Henry Waxman has criticized the company in a series of reports, including a Sept. 27 review that said the company ignored warnings, failed to properly equip its employees and cut essential personnel before the ambush.

Waxman has accused the company of initiating violence in a series of incidents in Iraq, quietly paying off one victim's family and avoiding U.S. taxes. He also highlighted ties between its top executives and the Bush administration.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday ordered added training and revised rules for use of force by security contractors in Iraq, following a Sept. 16 incident involving Blackwater that left at least 11 people dead.
The head of Blackwater, now know as Xe, is a well-connected Republican, Erik D. Prince. The New York Times did a profile on him during congressional investigations in 2007:
Republican political connections ran deep in his family long before Mr. Prince founded Blackwater in 1997. When he was a teenager, religious conservative leaders like Gary Bauer, now the president of American Values, were house guests. James C. Dobson, the founder of the evangelical organization Focus on the Family, gave the eulogy at his father’s funeral in 1995. “Dr. and Mrs. Dobson are friends with Erik Prince and his mother, Elsa Broekhuizen,” Focus on the Family said in a statement.

Mr. Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, married into one of the most politically active conservative families in the Midwest. She has served as the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Michigan, and last year, her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., ran unsuccessfully for governor of Michigan as the Republican candidate. Mr. Prince and his family have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and other conservative and religious causes, records show.

Various excuses are made for Blackwater just as excuses have been made for Cheney, Rumseld, Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and yes, George W. Bush. Hopefully, the era of private military contractors is drawing to a close. It cannot happen soon enough.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ecological Intelligence and Other News

When I was young and went camping with my father, he had a simple rule: leave the campsite cleaner than you found it. There were always bottle caps and wrappers and other things not to mention our own mess. Given the mess humans have been leaving for the past few centuries, leaving the earth cleaner than we found it would be a great principle to follow. The problem is that the world has become more complicated. I'm amazed at how much work and knowledge it takes to be green and I freely confess my ignorance on a wide range of ecological matters.

Luckily, Mary of The Left Coaster mentions Bill Moyers who talked with Daniel Goleman who has a book out called Ecological Intelligence (hey, isn't the Internet great!). Let's see: Ecological intelligence. Okay that's what I need more of. Here's a bit from Mary's post:
Life cycle assessment is being used by companies to change the way they do business. But even more important, the data is now available to us via websites like GoodGuide which help you correlate data from different studies to pick safe, healthy and green products by providing insight into the Ecological Impact of products.

Goleman says that by making this information accessible to everyone, a climate of Radical Transparency becomes possible and this means consumers will finally have the ability to make corporations and governments sensitive and responsive to people without people having to become experts or knowing who to trust or just because they feel it is morally the right thing to do. This technique makes it easy to do the right thing for ourselves and our planet. Plus it provides a powerful incentive to companies to improve their products and their processes. This technology makes it possible for anyone to make a difference just by understanding their choice and communicating that choice.

In other news, Think Progress has a story on Hardin, Montana and what they would like to do with their prison:
A frequent attack on the closure of Guantanamo is the claim that no one in the U.S. wants detainees housed in their backyard. ...Rob Reynolds reports that the town of Hardin, MT [is] requesting that 100 detainees be sent to its empty prison...

The story is dated May 18th. I checked Google News to see who else was carrying the story. Ah, it turns out the story has been around for at least three weeks. See this NPR story (It seems a good story still takes time to get around). Here's a thought. The federal government is unlikely to put terrorists in such a prison. On the other hand, the federal government has a fair number of low level prisoners who could be moved to Hardin while freeing up room in a secure federal facility. Maybe Hardin is on to something after all.

Here's the last story. The right wing chest beaters have been beating up on Pelosi in one of the more dishonest smear campaigns of the year. The point to keep in mind is that the CIA has a lot of professionals but one gets the impression that the Bush administration was notorious for not using professionals to do its dirty work. If Bush or Cheney needed a liar, they had little trouble finding one since they hired liars by the bushful for every department in the government. Here's another article pointing out that the CIA Records on Briefings Were Not Accurate.

Okay, I'm off to the library to see if I can find a book on ecological intelligence. What a phrase!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Religion Versus Spirituality

Although religion and spirituality can go hand in hand, it's surprising how often the two are divorced. Can one be religious in a real sense without being spiritual? Possibly, though I suppose it's not as easy as it might seem.

Perhaps if one has doubts and works at understanding the issues and honestly observes the forms without distorting the forms, one could be called religious without having spirituality. Literature is full of priests who never quite felt the spiritual dimension but who still felt strongly connected to their religion. But more common are preachers and priests who may or may not have being moved initially by their religion but who eventually abuse their office while observing the forms of religion, at least in the eyes of officialdom. I recently read The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hugo has no patience for church figures as well as the king. The book opens with a play with religious observances being interrupted by the pomp and ceremony of the top religious officials entering the building. The mob finds the pomp and ceremony more entertaining. Though not necessarily religious in the typical sense, the two most spiritual figures in Hugo's book are Quasimodo and La Esmeralda. In the end, one is hanged for capricious reasons and the other dies of despair.

New studies show that religion in the United States, or at least formal observance of religion, is on the decline. Even the fundamentalists are declining in numbers. To be honest, I'm not sure I understand the latest developments. Maybe everyone is tired of meaningfulness and just want a castle with three rooms, central heating and a dishwasher. That would be a sad development but not the first or last time people have turned away from religion. Barbara O'Brien in her regular column on Buddhism has observed this:
You can find no end of speculation about why the mainline Protestant churches went into such a steep decline. My take on it, for what it's worth -- first, as I remember it, in the 1950s and 1960s "going to church" was sold to us as one more thing we "should" do, like eating vegetables. But with the mainline Protestants especially, for many there seemed to be no compelling reason why, and younger people lost interest. I understand something like this is going on with Japanese Buddhism now. I suspect the fault is not in the religion but in a kind of institutional inertia. It can happen to any organization.

Anyway, evangelicals had less of a problem with exiting boomers because they had a more assertive message, reaching out to people who were troubled, telling them Jesus was the answer to their personal pain. In comparison, mainline Protestantism seemed something like spiritual dental floss.

The 1950s, as I recall them, was an age of excessive materialism. It was understandable given the Great Depression of the 1930s and the global conflicts of the 1940s. It was a time of rebuilding without much desire to think about anything except the mortgage and how to get a raise.

In the 1960s, young people wanted to turn away from materialism but didn't quite succeed and before they knew it they were settling in larger and larger homes by the 1980s. Where are we now? Are we again turning away from materialism? If so, it's not necessarily towards formal religion or even an informal spirituality. People are turning towards the inanity of the Internet and information technology. But that's not quite fair. There are a growing number of people genuinely concerned about the environment, nature and sustainability.

You can't interface with nature the same way you interface with programmed technology. Nature offers its surprises—and a richness computers are still far from reaching. If religion is losing some of its appeal, spirituality could possibly be on the rise, at least where people are not addicted to tribal gossip, computer games and technological gadgets. Beliefnet has a poll taken by Newsweek in 2005 that suggests spirituality, or at least the desire for spirituality in one's life is on the rise.

But I was struck by one result in the Newsweek poll. The first question was, "Can a good person who isn't of your religious faith go to heaven or attain salvation, or not?" It turns out that 91% of Catholics, who belong to a particularly formal religious organization, with lots of hierarchy and structures, believe good people of other faiths can go to heaven or attain salvation. That's a surprising degree of tolerance not found in other groups. Actually, only 22% of evangelical protestants said no to the question. I remember that 22% by way of people who approached me in my teens and twenties: they were hardcore and used hardcore sales techniques that put their beliefs in a poor light.

Over time, Americans appear to be getting more tolerant. That might be a factor in why Barack Obama was able to win and why McCain's vice presidential choice and his other proxies seemed so unappealing. We're in a time when the answers are not so clear. Perhaps those who claim to have all the answers are appearing more and more ridiculous to the young. Perhaps we're in a age where people need to find their own answers. That would be a step forward I believe. As long as the searching by the self is reasonably honest.


Monday, May 11, 2009

Smart Progressive Politics and Not Smart Progressive Politics

I often read Americablog and find many of the posts timely, useful and well-informed. Most of the time, it's a great progressive blog. But it seems John Aravosis can't help shooting himself in the foot from time to time. Today the Pope was in Israel to do some fence-mending and Aravosis couldn't resist a little Pope bashing. Dumb politics. John doesn't understand that the more you emphasize the differences between groups and the more dumb things you say that encourage average conservatives to close ranks, the more you play into the hands of right wing authoritarian leader types. Here's what John wrote:
... Oh, and the BBC also conveniently forgot to mention the little fact that the Vatican has historically been accused of turning a blind eye to the plight of Europe's Jews during WWII. ...

Is Barack Obama responsible for George W. Bush starting the war in Iraq? Was FDR responsible for slavery before 1865? There's a way to put such things in context without generalizing and without blaming a current figure and certainly without getting snarky. Nor is it necessary to mention historical context in every single story.

In a story about David Duke last month, Aravosis made clear his obsession with the Pope:

...David Duke, was arrested in Prague for denying the Holocaust. It's a crime punishable by three years in prison. Too bad he didn't go to the Vatican instead. They'd have made him a Bishop.

I'm not a fan of Pope Benedict XVI but I have many friends and relatives, both conservative and liberal, who are catholics. Aravosis seems to be going out of the way to rankle those who are not even his enemy. The Pope and the Catholic Church are not above criticism but there's a right way to do these things and a dumb way to do it.

I keep thinking about the sea change about gay marriage. What changed? What happened is that millions of Americans saw ordinary people lining up at city hall in San Francisco to get married. While my wife and I enjoyed seeing on TV the characters in San Francisco's Castro district who some years ago dressed up like nuns with ridiculous makeup, I had to check myself now and then. It was clear that the media was partly defining gays as guys who dress up like nuns: it didn't play well in most of America. What changed is when Americans saw people getting married who looked like their neighbors, coworkers and relatives. This is something that Barack Obama clearly understands: we the people of our country may have differences but our similarities are far more important than those differences.

When Aravosis launches broad attacks against Mormons or the Pope, he is posing a normative threat that is guaranteed to crank up the authoritarian dynamic. Pure and simple, it's dumb politics.