Saturday, June 23, 2007

Mr. Mayor, the Nader of ’08?

Published: June 23, 2007

A huge ego and a few billion dollars can cause an awful lot of mischief.

Michael Bloomberg is weighing a possible run for the White House. This is frightening for a couple of reasons. First, consider the prospect of a half-billion-dollars worth of 30-second Bloomberg-for-president ads running all day and all night on television screens in every part of the country.

Americans of every persuasion will have images of the mayor of New York all but burned into their retinas.

For Democrats, the other reason is much more frightening. If Mr. Bloomberg actually decides to run, he risks becoming the Ralph Nader of 2008, drawing votes away from the Democratic nominee and helping to install yet another Republican in the White House.

(Mr. Nader is also making noises about running next year, but it’s generally agreed that Mr. Bloomberg has a much more credible shot at being a spoiler.)

The main thing to keep in mind about Mr. Bloomberg is that he is a Democrat. He changed parties and registered as a Republican for tactical reasons when he ran for mayor in 2001. But he was a Republican in name only. He did not change his political philosophy, and he has continued to pursue the kind of policies you would expect from a Democrat.

As Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant, said this week in a reference to Mr. Bloomberg: “If you closed your eyes and you were told that someone was pro-public education, pro-choice, pro-immigration rights, pro-gun control, pro-civil rights, pro-gay rights and pro-women’s rights — you would be pretty happy if you were a Democrat.”

So whatever political banner he may be waving at any given time (he’s now calling himself an independent), Mr. Bloomberg is a Democrat. If he runs for president, he is far more likely to take votes from the Democratic nominee than the Republican one.

That’s why, for all the talk about the feuding between the Bloomberg and Giuliani camps, it’s the leading Democratic candidates who are the most unhappy about the possibility of a Bloomberg candidacy. A number of individuals close to Bill and Hillary Clinton said this week that a Bloomberg presidential run would have an especially harmful effect on Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, which, if anything, has been strengthening of late.

“He definitely hurts us,” said one dismayed Clinton supporter, who added: “You know, sometimes politicians have such big egos they can’t see reality. But Bloomberg is known for seeing reality. So he must know that if he runs he puts a Republican in the White House, which I don’t think he wants.”

The mayor would draw votes from people who want change, who are interested in something different, a new direction. Right now, almost by definition, such voters are Democrats, or independents and Republicans who are inclined to vote for a Democrat. These are voters upset not just by the war in Iraq and the demonstrated incompetence of the Bush administration, but by a variety of other major issues.

“They’re very anxious about a perceived decline in America’s fortunes,” said Mr. Lehane, “about the loss of the American dream for the middle class, the rise of China, global warming, the effect of technology on people’s lives, nuclear proliferation. I think these anxiety voters, who don’t feel that politics is working for them, are going to be the swing voters next year.”

Mr. Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire with a reputation for speaking his mind and a carefully crafted message of political independence, could be very appealing to some of those voters. But not to enough of them to win. And that is the flaw in the enormous trial balloon sent up by Mr. Bloomberg this week when he let it be known that he had abandoned his marriage-of-convenience to the Republican Party and would henceforth officially be independent.

You will find very few people who honestly believe that Mr. Bloomberg can win the presidency. So the crucial issue if he were to run would be the impact he has on the race.

He may not run. He may be enjoying the burst of attention his trial balloon has attracted. He may see this heightened attention as a way to amplify his voice nationally.

There are myriad ways this thing could play out. But the weirdest would be if Michael Bloomberg, who sees himself as such a serious person, plunged headlong into this race with little or no chance to win, and ended up spending $500 million to $1 billion on a venture that undermined the core issues and values he claims to believe in.

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This Land Was My Land

Published: June 23, 2007


Most Americans don’t own a summer home on Cape Cod, or a McMansion in the Rockies, but they have this birthright: an area more than four times the size of France. If you’re a citizen, you own it — about 565 million acres.

The deed on a big part of this public land inheritance dates to a pair of Republican class warriors from a hundred years ago: President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service.

Both were rich. Both were well-educated. Both were headstrong and quirky. Pinchot slept on a wooden pillow and had his valet wake him with ice water to the face. Teddy and G.P., as they were known, sometimes wrestled with each other, or swam naked in the Potomac.

In establishing the people’s estate, they fought Gilded Age titans — railroads, timber barons, mine owners — and their enablers in the Senate. And make no mistake: these acts may have been cast as the founding deeds of the environmental movement, but they were as much about class as conservation.

Pinchot had studied forestry in France, where a peasant couldn’t make a campfire without being subject to penalties. In England, he had seen how the lords of privilege had their way over the outdoors. In the United States, he and T.R. envisioned the ultimate expression of Progressive-era values: a place where a tired factory hand could be renewed — lord for a day.

“In the national forests, big money was not king,” wrote Pinchot. The Forest Service was beloved, he said, because “it stood up for the honest small man and fought the predatory big man as no government bureau had done before.”

A century later, I drove through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on my way to climb Mount Hood, and found the place in tatters. Roads are closed, or in disrepair. Trails are washed out. The campgrounds, those that are open, are frayed and unkempt. It looks like the forestry equivalent of a neighborhood crack house.

In the Pinchot woods, you see the George W. Bush public lands legacy. If you want to drill, or cut trees, or open a gas line — the place is yours. Most everything else has been trashed or left to bleed to death.

Remember the scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when Jimmy Stewart’s character sees what would happen to Bedford Falls if the richest man in town took over? All those honky-tonks, strip joints and tenement dwellings in Pottersville?

If Roosevelt roamed the West today, he’d find some of the same thing in the land he entrusted to future presidents. The national wildlife system, started by T.R., has been emasculated. President Bush has systematically pared the budget to the point where, this year, more than 200 refuges could be without any staff at all.

The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees some of the finest open range, desert canyons and high-alpine valleys in the world, was told early on in the Bush years to make drilling for oil and gas their top priority. A demoralized staff has followed through, but many describe their jobs the way a cowboy talks about having to shoot his horse.

In Colorado, the bureau just gave the green light to industrial development on the aspen-forested high mountain paradise called the Roan Plateau. In typical fashion, the administration made a charade of listening to the public about what to do with the land. More than 75,000 people wrote them — 98 percent opposed to drilling.

For most of the Bush years, the Interior Department was nominally run by a Stepford secretary, Gale Norton, while industry insiders like J. Steven Griles — the former coal lobbyist who pled guilty this year to obstruction of justice — ran the department.

Same in the Forest Service, where an ex-timber industry insider, Mark Rey, guides administration policy.

They don’t take care of these lands because they see them as one thing: a cash-out. Thus, in Bush’s budget proposal this year, he guts the Forest Service budget yet again, while floating the idea of selling thousands of acres to the highest bidder. The administration says it wants more money for national parks. But the parks are $10 billion behind on needed repairs; the proposal is a pittance.

Roosevelt had his place on Oyster Bay. Pinchot had a family estate in Pennsylvania. Bush has the ranch in Crawford. Only one of them has never been able to see beyond the front porch.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.

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A Mayor Often Ill at Ease, and Usually Muted on Iraq

Published: June 23, 2007

The mayor’s lips are pursed. The tuxedo-and-gown dinner crowd in the Pierre hotel ballroom has fallen still, just a few spoons rattling along the rims of dessert plates. At the very front of the room, the spotlight has settled on Michael R. Bloomberg. Someone is reading an award citation for his work as mayor. Mr. Bloomberg oscillates. He bounces on his toes, nods his head. His eyes appear to be pinned open. Though he has not uttered a word, Mr. Bloomberg’s body seems to all but scream: Get me out of here.

It is easy to watch him going through the motions of the routine antics of public officialdom — the giving of plaques, the issuing of proclamations, the receiving of medals — and believe that he shows up only because, somehow, if just through body language, he can sneer at the ceremony. That the soul of a punk-rocker has been wrapped in custom-tailored suits.

By quitting the Republican Party, Mr. Bloomberg has made himself available for a presidential campaign, ready for voters who like their coffee strong. Yet for all his bluntness, Mr. Bloomberg has kept his lips pursed on the defining exercise of American power in the 21st century — the invasion of Iraq — except to offer quiet, unambiguous support.

At the Pierre on Thursday, as the gold medal of the Foreign Policy Association was draped around his neck in honor of his efforts at education reform, Mr. Bloomberg ducked his head and managed the barest of smiles.

Mr. Bloomberg combines frank indifference to ritual with what seems like a full-brained embrace of problems: Here are 158 pages on how the city can cut the amount of carbon fuels it burns. Here’s a new telephone number for all city services. Here’s a reorganized school system.

He raced through his speech Thursday evening without bothering much about the oratory, but still managed to offer a panoramic view on a few topics. He noted that in a global economy, a weak education meant second-class citizenship. Without 400,000 to 500,000 immigrants every year, he said, the country would not have enough people to pay for Social Security, to start new businesses, or to refresh the culture. And how, he asked, could the United States have visa rules that forced brilliant foreign graduate students who had gotten American degrees to leave the country?

“We just have to stop this craziness, and understand who we are, and not be so threatened by terrorism that the terrorists win without firing a shot,” he said.

Although he was speaking to a foreign policy group, Mr. Bloomberg barely mentioned Iraq or the central role that the city was assigned in the justification for the war.

In May 2004, a year after the invasion, Mr. Bloomberg served as host to Laura Bush, who had come to New York in an effort to rally support for the war effort. Mrs. Bush visited a memorial for Sept. 11th victims. Standing next to Mrs. Bush, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, Mr. Bloomberg, right, suggested that New Yorkers could find justification for the war at the World Trade Center site, even though no Iraqi is known to have had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Don’t forget that the war started not very many blocks from here,” he said that day in 2004.

Apart from these remarks and other comments about the cruel history of Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bloomberg has said little about the war or other foreign affairs; to do so, he and his aides have said, would be a form of grandstanding for which he has no taste.

A few hours before the mayor gave his speech on Thursday night, American military officials announced that 14 more soldiers had been killed in two days. And for Iraqi civilians, the death toll of 9/11 is not a once-in-an-epoch moment, but often the monthly body count in the morgues. In his speech, Mr. Bloomberg remarked on the sacrifice of soldiers and what he implied was the ingratitude of people opposed to the war.

“We shouldn’t forget that we have young men and women overseas fighting and dying, sadly, so that we can protest,” he said. “I sometimes think young protesters don’t realize that their right to protest is not something that they would have elsewhere, and it’s a right that has to be fought for continuously.”

As for those who made the decision to go to war, Mr. Bloomberg’s lips remained firmly sealed.


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A Lifeline of Sorts to Newspapers

Published: June 23, 2007

So I went to Chicago this week to see Sam Zell, the billionaire real estate mogul who not all that long ago sold one of his major holdings, Equity Office Properties Trust, to the Blackstone Group for $39 billion.

In all of human history, there has never been a larger private equity deal. But was I interested in interviewing him about this great triumph? Nah. As a cog in the wheel of the struggling newspaper industry, I wanted to hear what Mr. Zell had to say about his recent — how to describe it? “Takeover?” “Bear hug?” “Assumption of control?”— of the Tribune Company, owner of The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, a handful of television stations and the Chicago Cubs, among other assets.

As Zell deals go, this hardly ranks among his biggest; he’s putting up a “mere” $250 million to gain control of a company with $5.5 billion in revenue last year. But what it lacks in economic heft, it more than makes up for in complexity. When the deal closes, probably at the end of the year, the Tribune Company will go from being a public company to a private S corporation, meaning it will pay no corporate taxes. Its sole owner will be an employee stock ownership plan, which is essentially a fund, owned by employees, which owns the company’s stock. ESOPs also pay no taxes, meaning that both the company and its owner will no longer be taxpayers. Mr. Zell, who will become chairman of the company, will immediately recoup his $250 million and then reinvest an additional $315 million (don’t ask). He’ll have an option to buy 40 percent of the company for another $500 million to $600 million. (If he does so, he will become the one taxpayer in the deal.)

The Tribune Company will be laden with debt, $13 billion in all, which it plans to pay down in part with the extra cash flow that is generated from not having to pay taxes. If the company does well — or even just decently — everyone will make out, starting with the employees whose stock in the ESOP will be worth a lot more than $28 a share, the discounted price the ESOP paid for it.

But if it continues to sink — and just this week, the Tribune Company announced that May revenue fell 11.1 percent — then the company could wind up in default, which would hurt everyone, starting, again, with the employees, who would lose the value of their ESOP shares.

This state of affairs means that all hands at the Tribune Company have a powerful incentive to figure out some way to stop the bleeding, and start growing again. And all of us who work at the country’s other newspaper companies, which are also bleeding to greater or lesser degrees, have a rooting interest in Tribune’s experiment. Which is not to say we all ought to be racing to set up ESOPs. As is so often the case, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

A VISIT to Mr. Zell’s Chicago office is always a bit of a trip. A short gruff man with a trim white beard, Mr. Zell, 65, tends toward gold chains, brightly colored shirts and jeans. He is joyously blunt-spoken and quite funny. And his office is festooned with extravagant music boxes he designs each year and sends out at Christmastime. Last year’s version, for instance, features a Frank Sinatra soundalike singing lyrics, written by Mr. Zell, that lampoon Sarbanes-Oxley, while two sculptured hands moved forward, as if to throttle American capitalism. (You can see and hear most of the collection at; it’s worth a visit for the sheer entertainment value.)

But back to the Tribune Company. The newspaper industry, as has been documented ad nauseum, is hurting because the Internet has wreaked havoc on its business model. The once-lucrative classified ad business has been largely destroyed, while circulation has fallen sharply as people have either stopped reading the paper, or taken to reading it online free. Advertising on the Internet, meanwhile, generates only a fraction of the revenue that ads in a newspaper bring in. The trick, which no one has yet solved, is to figure out how to grow as readers and ads continue to gravitate to the Internet.

As it turns out, Mr. Zell doesn’t have a silver bullet either. He seemed to take the view, for instance, that all it would take for the Tribune Company to start generating more ad revenue was a smarter advertising sales approach. And while he said he had ideas he wasn’t ready to unveil until the transaction closed, he didn’t seem to believe, as so many do (myself included), that the news business is going to have to find a different model if it hopes to thrive again. “It is a 160-year-old business that has a lot of history and an opportunity to do a much better job,” he said, speaking of the Tribune Company.

Mr. Zell also made it plain that he did the deal not because he harbored some deep feelings about the role of newspapers in a democracy, but because he was getting a good asset on the cheap. “I looked at this as a business transaction,” he told me. “That’s just who I am. My entry point is $34 a share”— and that low price is why he jumped in. (The ESOP trustee negotiated the lower $28 a share for the employees.) He was just doing what he’s done his entire career: buying an out-of-favor asset.

What most seemed to excite him was the ESOP itself. And why not? As the Lehman Brothers tax expert Robert Willens said, “He is using it in a way that no one has ever done before.” Mostly, ESOPs are set up when family owners want to cash out of privately held companies and turn them over to their employees. Mr. Zell, by contrast, is using it to buy out the shareholders of a large public corporation —and turn it into a tax-free private company.

“If I do it right,” Mr. Zell said, “the Tribune will offer a new kind of example. If I can get people to focus on the fact that they own it, we can make progress towards creating value.” He continued: “Being a private company will be beneficial.” Righting the ship, he thought, would be easier if the Tribune Company no longer had to worry about the pressures of Wall Street.

In that case, I asked him, should Dow Jones and The New York Times Company —two companies where revenue and the stock price have declined in recent years —follow him into ESOP-ville? More broadly, if going private made sense for the Tribune Company, did it therefore make sense for other media companies? This is an idea that gets talked about a lot these days among journalists, who fear that the nonstop cost-cutting demanded by Wall Street will damage even the best newspapers — and who see private ownership as a panacea.

Mr. Zell quickly dismissed Dow Jones from the discussion; its “point of entry” was too high, thanks to Rupert Murdoch’s $60-a-share offer. But for the Times Company, and many other media companies with depressed stock prices, it might well make sense, he said.

But I’m not so sure. The notion of taking a struggling company private is an appealing one on the surface. Brian Tierney, the Philadelphia advertising executive who led a consortium of local investors who bought The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily News from Knight Ridder last year, told me that running them as a private enterprise has made a world of difference. “We are spending $14 million to boost marketing and circulation,” he said. “Knight Ridder spent $300,000. If we were publicly traded, we couldn’t do this.” Of course, going private didn’t prevent Mr. Tierney from calling for big layoffs when the papers turned in some dismal numbers shortly after he took them over.

The truth is, the problem is the same for all newspaper companies, whether private or public. They all have to continue groping toward an uncertain future until they find a way to start growing again. If they don’t, they’re doomed. “Badly run newspapers will fail,” said Merrill Brown, a media industry consultant. The Tribune Company may no longer have to face pressure from Wall Street, but it is going to have an enormous amount of debt to service, and that is going to create short-term pressure at least as onerous as anything Wall Street could devise.

However much Mr. Zell admires his ESOP, it’s worth remembering that the Tribune Company acted out of desperation. It had put itself up for sale and had come up empty. Other newspapers companies, despite their problems, aren’t in the same dire place. In the case of The New York Times Company — which has been facing off with an activist investor from Morgan Stanley, who has gained considerable support for his view that the company needs to do much more to bolster its share price — the company has a different kind of shield. Its supervoting Class B shares are held by a family, the Sulzbergers, that is completely united in its desire to continue to own the company, and to see it through to better times.

As infuriating as it may be to the company’s public shareholders, that unity offers just as much insulation as Mr. Zell’s ESOP — without the burden of all that ESOP debt. At Dow Jones, the company ran out of time when the controlling Bancroft family became divided. Indeed, the pressure of the public marketplace might actually be a net plus for the Times Company, because it means that management is constantly being reminded that it doesn’t have time to waste in finding ways to start growing. Otherwise it will end up in the same place as Dow Jones. As it turns out, there are worse fates than having to deal with Wall Street analysts.

“Quality and profitability go hand in hand,” Katharine Graham used to say. These days, that notion is precisely what’s in question — and what is so scary to so many in the newspaper business. If Sam Zell can use an ESOP to prove her right, God bless him. But until then, I’m not jumping on the ESOP bandwagon.

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Home Fires: Five Iraq War Vets On Their Return To American Life

I’m sitting on a curb along the edge of the parking lot next to the gym with two duffle bags, a ruck sack, the M249 and a 9mm strapped to my leg. It is hard to believe that all of my personal possessions for the next year can be hand carried.

— Journal Entry, November 11, 2003

I’m sitting on a curb along the edge of the parking lot next to the gym with two duffle bags, a ruck sack, the M249 and a 9mm strapped to my leg. It is hard to believe that all of my personal possessions for the next year can be hand carried.

— Journal Entry, November 11, 2003

illustrations by Sindee Garcia

Present: It hit me two days ago, as I was unpacking the truck after a camping trip, loading the washing machine, washing the dirty dog, doing the dishes, mopping the floor, and finally driving downtown to pick up dinner, how simple the day to day routine of life in Iraq was. (By no means am I implying that I want to go back.)

Although in Iraq our lives were constantly in danger, everything was laid out for us. At the time, having limited choice felt like prison. Now at times I wish someone would make decisions for me. It has become clear that limited choice in a war zone allows the soldier to focus only on the task at hand.

Arriving with two duffel bags, I didn’t have to worry about material things, everything I was going to wear, wash with, or use for entertainment was packed. During the first few months an M.R.E. (Meal Ready to Eat) was simply tossed to me out of a cardboard box, I didn’t even get to shuffle through that brown box to determine if I wanted the tortellini or the ham slice. We all wore the same thing, so there was no need to fret over what to wear, no putting on an outfit, looking in the mirror, and thinking, “I don’t feel like tan today.”

After we arrived on base, there were Iraqis that did our laundry, kitchen staff that cooked and cleaned the dishes, air conditioning and hot water that was already paid for. Luckily, I had a great friend who was taking care of my finances while I was away, so I didn’t even have to look at my checkbook. All I had to do was wake up, go the gym, go down town, avoid roadside bombs, safely return to base, attend three hours of meetings, eat, and sleep. Although it became extremely routine, it was simple.

At home we are constantly trying to keep up with everybody and everything. Feels like I am spinning on a wheel that never stops turning. When will it rust up, slow down, stop? It took going away and coming back to see all of the unnecessary “stuff” that we clutter ourselves and our lives with.

You wake up, choose what to wear from a wardrobe that would fill ten duffel bags. Look in the mirror and ensure that it meets the “business-world/professional standard” and looks good. Take a shower with multiple choices of body soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Open a stocked refrigerator, that in order to fill required you to look over hundreds of brands, and decide which of all of these things would make you the happiest. Choose which flavor of yogurt to eat, which juice to drink, which glass to use. Then decide what to drive to work; the van, the truck, the Toyota, the motorcycle, or the bicycle.

In the United State, grocery shopping — what seems like a simple task — can be overwhelming as well. I went to buy body lotion when I first returned and I remember having to choose from 20 different brands … and what makes one better than another? I have yet to figure that out. It is a luxury that all of our meat is wrapped, and that the vegetables are stacked high in refrigerated bins with water misting over them. Iraqis have meat hanging in the streets, and are lucky to have a refrigerator that is actually running all day in their homes. Then there is the Super Wal-Mart … it is amazing the stuff I never knew that I “needed” until I walked into that store.

Upon reaching the check-out line, we choose which card to pay with. Master Card, Visa, Discover Card, gift card, Albertson’s card, Safeway card. I walked into Pet Smart last week and the cashier said, “Do you have a Pet Smart card?

“No,” I said. “Would I save money if I did?”

He replied, “No, nothing you bought is on sale.”

Why not just mark it as on sale? Simplify things, instead of having to carry another card?

After shopping you may finally decide it is easier to go out to eat. Now we choose which of the 100 restaurants in town to dine at. Sit down, look at an insanely long menu and try to decide what to eat or drink. Simplicity does not exist. Having come back I realize how big, how fast, and how excessive our lifestyle as Americans seems to be.

At times I am envious of the slow pace of life that I observed in Iraq. Simplicity definitely has its appeal; maybe that spinning wheel would slow down if everyone learned to live a little more simply.

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TWO FOR THE ROAD: In Africa With Nick Kristof

Alice Walker observed, “Black women are the mules of the world.” Traveling across the poor African country of Burundi, we see women doing the majority of the hard fieldwork and, of course, all of the labor in the home.

We also drive by women of all ages transporting insane loads of goods and foods on their backs from village to village or to the market. These women are struggling up endless hills, stooped almost parallel to the ground, traveling miles upon miles. (Nick Kristof attempted to carry a 50-year-old woman’s bag and nearly toppled under the weight,)

Here in Burundi, the muling process begins early as few girls complete more than a few years of formal education. Why should a family continue to pay school bills (uniforms, supplies, etc.) for a girl when that child could be helping her mother work in the house? The girl’s future is already predetermined: marriage and servitude.

Today we visited a primary school in the province of Kirundo, where the World Food Programme has implemented a new initiative that seeks to address the existing gender disparity in Burundi schools. All female students between the grades of four and six receive a take-home ration of food.

It is now more lucrative for a Burundi family to send their child to school than to keep her at home. The incentive program at this primary school has quickly proved a success as total enrollment has grown sharply.

Perhaps Chicago Public Schools should consider a similar program to address the alarming drop-out rate of black male students (predominately low-income). Currently we expect these students to finish school because it is in their future best interests, and yet less than 50% (numbers vary according to source) graduate citywide, including where I teach at Westside Alternative High School.

Male students drop-out for myriad of reasons, however I believe most leave school because they do not or can not see how their high school classes or the resulting diploma is relevant to their future success. There are few older male role models in these low-income neighborhoods who can demonstrate that an education is essential to personal, career, and financial success,

Plus, school is boring as hell, no one seems to care, there is constant hostility and fights, and there is money to be made now, legally and illegally. So why should they stay in school?

A financial incentive for attendance, grades and behavior would address their current economic situations while simultaneously providing them with a diploma and the framework to enter the workforce or college. More importantly, education will enable young, low-income urban black males, like the girls in Kirundo, to climb off society’s bottom rung in the climb to equality and respect.

I know, I know, it is ridiculous to pay students to attend school, but what is your plan to curb the urban male drop-out rate?

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TWO FOR THE ROAD: In Africa With Nick Kristof

I never thought I would be so happy to leave the Congo. Goma never felt right to me; in fact, the more days I spent walking along the dark gray lava-covered ground, being stared at by suspicious and glaring eyes, the more tense and anxious I became. Like Will, I was relieved to return to the oasis of our hotel every night.

Others in the Congo do not have the choice to leave. I keep thinking of the camps I visited full of homeless people living in thatch-roof shacks. One camp is aptly nicknamed “misery camp”: Many have had family members raped and killed, they have no access to education, and they are completely dependent on outside assistance for food. These villagers cannot return home. They have no security anywhere. They are indefinitely stuck in these tiny camps, with uncertain futures and little hope.

“Misery camp” may well reflect the status of the Congo. It’s infinitely sad to me that such a beautiful country endowed with so many natural resources can have such a tortured past and present. I remember driving through a town in Rutshuru province that was absolutely breathtaking, with beautiful greenery and lush vegetation everywhere. No more than 5 km from that town, we came across another one where its crops were neglected and houses burned. Weeds were growing everywhere. This town had been attacked by soldiers, our guide explained. All the people have left and are now living in a displacement camp. Like its crops, the town is completely deserted.

What’s ironic is that the villagers who left are now dependent on the food provided by the World Food Program (WFP), whereas before the attack, the town used to produce food for the WFP. Who attacked the town remains unclear: one rebel fraction will always blame another, and all will say that whatever they did was justified to bring peace to the people. “I don’t think these soldiers understand,” said our guide, “They say they are fighting for the people, but they are actually shooting the people in the head and our country in the foot.”

Perhaps it is in part because of its abundant resources that the Congo has been embroiled in the downward cycle of conflict, poverty, and hopelessness. In his book, “The Bottom Billion,” Paul Collier discussed four traps leading to what he refers to as the poverty trap. These include the traps of conflict, bad governance, being land-locked with bad neighbors, and having abundant natural resources. Many countries have one trap; some have two. The Congo is particularly unfortunate to have suffered from all four traps.

Will the Congo ever break free of these traps? Almost every Congolese I spoke with had little hope for their country. “We just have bad leaders who kill,” said one man. “Good leaders don’t live long in the Congo.” Everyone talked about the erosion of human values. I really felt devoid of hope when a pastor told me, “Nobody here has human values any more. They think it is normal to rape and kill. God cannot even help because the people here no longer have faith in anything.”

Perhaps the most disturbing part of being in the Congo is that I feel myself becoming numb to the ongoing atrocities. I am no longer reacting with horror and shock upon hearing that this town has had 25 people massacred, or that this woman had been raped by five soldiers, or that all these thousands are barely surviving after being kicked out of their village. A week ago, I wouldn’t have thought that I could just shrug and think of deaths and rapes as a statistics.

I learned a great deal from visiting the Congo. particularly about the pervasive and damaging effects of conflict and insecurity. But it is time that I leave. I don’t want to become immune to human suffering, and I don’t want to lose hope for humanity.

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Domestic Disturbances: a blog @ Times Select by Judith Warner

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The Opinionator: Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellentrop

  • Defund the veep! Now that Dick Cheney has declared the vice president’s office to be a fourth branch of government, he has acknowledged that the executive isn’t unitary after all, says U.C.L.A. law professor Jonathan Zasloff at the academic group blog The Reality-Based Community. Zasloff wants the Democratic Congress to include this line in next year’s budget: “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to fund or support in any way the Office of the Vice President of the United States.”

    “It is by now obvious, if any further proof were necessary, that Cheney and Addington have never been particularly interested in defending constitutional principles,” writes Yale law professor Jack Balkin at the legal group blog Balkinization. “They do not seek to preserve executive power. They seek to preserve their own power. They discarded the canard of the unitary executive as soon as it became inconvenient.”

  • Why hasn’t a Christian conservative presidential candidate gained the support of Iowa’s socially conservative Republican caucus-goers (who, for example, voted Pat Robertson second in 1988)? Ross Douthat thinks one man has a chance to break though: Smike Brownbuckabee.

  • Her campaign will go on: Peggy Noonan thinks Hillary Clinton’s selection of Celine Dion’s “You and I” for her campaign song demonstrates Clinton’s devious political genius. “Why would Hillary pick a song distinguished only by its schmaltzy averageness?” Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal. “Because she thinks it’s the kind of music a likable, feminine middle class woman would like? Because her consultants researched the exact number and nature of fans who go to Celine Dion’s show in Vegas each years, and determined they are the exact middle of America? Because it focus-grouped well? All of the above?”

  • Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, who is an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, thinks the fact that Romney disagrees with him on immigration policy should be considered a point in Romney’s favor. “No sensible voter would think less of a candidate who has advisers who sometimes disagree with him,” Mankiw writes on his personal blog. “But a sensible voter should think less of a candidate who has no advisers who ever disagree with him.”

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The Opinionator: Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellentrop

  • Another surprised liberal for Michael Moore: The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, author of “Sick,” reviews Moore’s “Sicko.” “Moore has not always been the most intellectually rigorous storyteller — or, for liberals, the most useful ally,” Cohn concedes. He writes of “Sicko”:

    I spotted plenty of intellectual dishonesties and arguments without context — enough, surely, to keep right-wing truth squads (and some left-wing ones) busy for weeks. Moore also couldn’t help but stick in unrelated jabs about the Bush administration’s efforts to fight terrorism and insisted on hyping Cuba’s medical system — an awfully poor way to counter the generations-old slander that universal health care is tantamount to “socialized medicine.”

    Still, by the time the final credits ran, it was hard to get too worked up about all of that. Because, beyond all the grandstanding and political theater, the movie actually made a compelling, argument about what’s wrong with U.S. health care and how to fix it. Sicko got a lot of the little things wrong. But it got most of the big things right.

  • All by herself: “If the S.A.T.’s analogies section tested politics and pop culture, even the dimmest teenager would agree that ‘Hillary Clinton: Politics = Celine Dion: Music,’ ” writes Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks. “Both Clinton and Dion have enjoyed astounding career success. Both showed early talent but are now widely accused of being sellouts. Dion’s interesting, edgy early songs were replaced, during her bid for superstardom, by trite and formulaic crowd pleasers; Clinton’s interesting, edgy early policy positions were replaced, during her bid for elected office, by trite and formulaic crowd pleasers.”

  • The Los Angeles Times editorial page calls the United States “a human rights abuser“: “As long as the U.S. continues to deny due process of law to ‘enemy combatants’ detained indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay, and as long as it commits extrajudicial kidnappings of terrorism suspects and ships them to countries known to torture detainees, it will remain guilty of cruel and tyrannical behavior.”

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Why Are We Surprised?


Published: June 20, 2007


With all the sudden talk of a "West Bank first" strategy, embracing the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and consigning Hamas-dominated Gaza to the dogs, it is easy enough to forget that we are just over two years down the road from a "Gaza first" approach that had the Bush Administration excited.

To reacquaint myself with this reality, I contacted James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president who, in April of 2005, was appointed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement.

It was critical, Rice said at the time, to "seize the moment" of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza because "we have an opportunity right now to help Israelis and Palestinians build trust with one another and achieve the peace and security they both desire."

Fine words that proved as consequential as yesterday's newspapers. Wolfensohn, a seasoned negotiator, tried. He tried to the point of raising almost $15 million - including $10 million from a single American donor - to acquire greenhouses Israeli settlers were abandoning in the summer of 2005.

"We even gave them the greenhouses!" is now a refrain from the Israeli government in arguing that the "test case" of Gaza has failed, leading not to the democratic embryo of a Palestinian state but to a nest of Hamas-led terror.

The refrain overlooks Wolfensohn's role and the cash paid. More important, it overlooks the fact that the greenhouses looked set to become a profitable Gaza industry before Israel shut the border and the produce rotted.

"Once it was clear the business was viable, threats stopped and the community took tremendous pride in growing flowers, fruits and vegetables for export to Israel," Wolfensohn told me.

"The absolute tragedy was that within months of the commencement of that activity, issues of security at the border, some proven, some not, led to the border being sealed and everything getting wasted," he added.

"There is one inevitable truth in the Middle East: Unless you provide economic activity to young people who are 70 percent of the population, you will have conflict. They will shoot the people they blame and in the end they will shoot each other."

Of course, Hamas rose in Gaza. It won the election in early 2006 that the West had called for. That was problematic. Hamas has been deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union. It has rejected calls to recognize Israel, forswear all violence and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian accords.

But "seizing the moment," as Rice said, involves risk. It is inconceivable without some sort of good-faith engagement. There was no way that Gaza, a slither of impoverished territory crammed with 1.3 million Palestinians, driven into the ground by corrupt Fatah governance, was going to show Swiss moderation in its first election.

To believe otherwise is to inhabit an imaginary Middle East - a transnational Green Zone - and it is not in a world of the imagination that anything is going to get solved. Hamas, right now, represents a very large number of Palestinians, like it or not. "West Bank first" will not change that.

Wolfensohn, no dreamer, said: "I can only tell you that the Israeli closing of the Gaza borders was made with less consideration of the impact than needed. Aside from the military analysis, you have to consider the impact on a society, because social dislocation leads to anger and violence."

After a year in the job, marginalized, he slipped away. "The view on the American and Israeli side was that you could not trust the Palestinians, and the result was not to build more economic activity, but to build more barriers," Wolfensohn said. "And I personally did not think that was the way forward."

Nor do I. "Gaza first" imploded because Gaza was cut off. Intra-Palestinian mayhem ensued. Hamas has terrorist elements. But it remains more a Palestinian national than a global jihadist movement. There are members of Hamas with whom dialogue is possible. To make peace you have to get the enemy to the table.

American and European money is now being rushed to Abbas and his emergency government in the West Bank. President George W. Bush, meeting this week with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, called Abbas the "president of all the Palestinians."

What independent Palestinian state Abbas could ever one day govern is another matter. Unless the real world is addressed, "Gaza first" and now "West Bank first" will one day give way to "Ramallah first" as putative Palestine perishes.

"This has been a terrible example for me of hope being turned into real tragedy," Wolfensohn said.


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Published: June 22, 2007

A little while ago, a national study authorized by Congress found that abstinence education programs don’t work. That gave liberals a chance to feel superior because it turns out that preaching traditional morality to students doesn’t change behavior.

But in this realm, nobody has the right to feel smug. American schools are awash in moral instruction — on sex, multiculturalism, environmental awareness and so on — and basically none of it works. Sex ed doesn’t change behavior. Birth control education doesn’t produce measurable results. The fact is, schools are ineffectual when it comes to values education. You can put an adult in front of a classroom or an assembly, and that adult can emit words, but don’t expect much impact.

That’s because all this is based on a false model of human nature. It’s based on the idea that human beings are primarily deciders. If you pour them full of moral maxims, they will be more likely to decide properly when temptation arises. If you pour them full of information about the consequences of risky behavior, they will decide to exercise prudence and forswear unwise decisions.

That’s the way we’d like to think we are, but that’s not the way we really are, and it’s certainly not the way teenagers are. There is no central executive zone in the brain where all information is gathered and decisions are made. There is no little homunculus up there watching reality on a screen and then deciding how to proceed. In fact, the mind is a series of parallel processes and loops, bidding for urgency.

We’re not primarily deciders. We’re primarily perceivers. The body receives huge amounts of information from the world, and what we primarily do is turn that data into a series of generalizations, stereotypes and theories that we can use to navigate our way through life. Once we’ve perceived a situation and construed it so that it fits one of the patterns we carry in our memory, we’ve pretty much rigged how we’re going to react, even though we haven’t consciously sat down to make a decision.

Construing is deciding.

A boy who grew up in a home where he was emotionally rejected is going to perceive his girlfriend differently than one who grew up in a happier home, even though he might not be able to tell you why or how. Women who grow up in fatherless homes menstruate at an earlier age than those who don’t, and surely perceive their love affairs differently as well.

Women who live in neighborhoods with a shortage of men wear more revealing clothing and are in general more promiscuous than women in other neighborhoods. They probably are not conscious of how their behavior has changed, but they’ve accurately construed their situation (tougher competition for mates) and altered their behavior accordingly.

When a teenage couple is in the backseat of a car about to have sex or not, or unprotected sex or not, they are not autonomous creatures making decisions based on classroom maxims or health risk reports. Their behavior is shaped by the subconscious landscapes of reality that have been implanted since birth.

Did they grow up in homes where they felt emotionally secure? Do they often feel socially excluded? Did they grow up in a neighborhood where promiscuity is considered repulsive? Did they grow up in a sex-drenched environment or an environment in which children are buffered from it? (According to a New Zealand study, firstborns are twice as likely to be virgins at 21 than later-born children.)

In other words, the teenagers in that car won’t really be alone. They’ll be in there with a whole web of attitudes from friends, family and the world at large. Some teenagers will derive from those shared patterns a sense of subconscious no-go zones. They’ll regard activities in that no-go zone the way vegetarians regard meat — as a taboo, beyond immediate possibility.

Deciding is conscious and individual, but perceiving is subconscious and communal. The teen sex programs that actually work don’t focus on the sex. They focus on the environment teens live in. They work on the substratum of perceptions students use to orient themselves in the world. They don’t try to lay down universal rules, but apply the particular codes that have power in distinct communities. They understand that changing behavior changes attitudes, not the other way around.

They understand that whether it’s in middle school or the Middle East, getting human nature right is really important. We’re perceivers first, not deciders.

Paul Krugman is on vacation.

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A Sad Tale of Fictional S.E.C. Filings

Published: June 22, 2007

When it comes to disclosures, Universal Express is not exactly a model company.

In its latest quarterly report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Universal reports that its suit against the S.E.C., and an S.E.C. suit “against certain officers” of Universal, “are pending.”

It does not mention that the company itself is also a defendant in the S.E.C. suit, nor that during the quarter in question a federal judge in New York ruled that the company and the officers had violated securities laws and ordered them to pay $21.9 million.

The judge described Universal’s chief executive, Richard A. Altomare, and its general counsel, Chris G. Gunderson, as “repeated and remorseless violators” of the securities laws. He barred Mr. Altomare from being an officer or director of any public company, and barred both men from being involved in sales of penny stocks. None of that is mentioned in the quarterly report.

As for the company’s suit against the S.E.C., it does not appear to be pending at all. A federal judge in Miami dismissed it in 2005, and that judgment was affirmed by an appeals court in 2006. If there is a further appeal pending, it is not mentioned in the court docket.

The case of Universal Express, a small company that loses money even faster than it issues news releases, is not very important on its merits. But it shows how hard it can be for the S.E.C. to halt what it views as a fraud. The S.E.C. filed suit against Universal in 2004, but the company is still financing itself by issuing billions of unregistered shares.

In Universal’s world, it is the victim. It says the S.E.C. investigated it only in order to retaliate for the company’s criticism of the agency.

Universal says the only issue worth considering is its claim that its stock price fell because of “naked short selling,” in which shares were sold by traders who neither owned them nor borrowed them. Mr. Altomare calls the S.E.C. a “bully” and says the commissioners “will have to answer for their treatment of us whistle-blowers.”

He is dismissive of Judge Gerard E. Lynch of Federal District Court in New York, who ruled that Universal violated the law when it issued a series of news releases that were “at best misleading and sometimes wholly fantastical” and used them to sell 500 million shares that were illegally issued from 2002 to 2004.

All the federal judges in New York, Mr. Altomare told me, “tend to support the S.E.C. whether or not they read the depositions or research the laws.”

In one news release, the company forecast $9 million in annual revenue from 9,000 private postal stores. But, the judge said, “there is no evidence that Universal Express actually had a relationship with any such store and, indeed, Altomare has explained that its ‘network’ consisted of every postal store existing in the United States that had not somehow known to opt out of it.”

Nothing much has changed after the ruling. The latest quarterly report says those 9,000 stores are “members” of Universal Express’s network. The news releases the judge found to be false are still on the Universal Web site

If the S.E.C. was upset that Universal Express issued 500 million unregistered shares over 33 months, how do you think it feels about the fact the company issued 5.4 billion unregistered shares in the first three months of this year, with 660 million being sold and the rest issued for “deferred services,” which I think means the recipients are supposed to provide future services.

Universal claimed its old stock issues were allowed by a bankruptcy court ruling permitting it to issue stock options when it finished reorganization in 1994. Judge Lynch found that claim to be baseless and dismissed the company’s justifications for some news releases as “flatly ludicrous.”

Billions of shares in Universal Express now trade each week on the over-the-counter bulletin board. Calling it a penny stock may be a compliment, because you can get 25 shares for a penny. But last year it traded as high as 40 cents.

Big numbers are a staple of Universal announcements, but not of its financial statements. The S.E.C. suit cited news releases claiming a total of $885 million in financing, none of which seems to have arrived. For years Universal has said it hopes to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments from investment bankers involved in a 1997 Universal Express financing.

In 2006, Universal lost $18.9 million on revenue of just $1.1 million. Mr. Altomare, acting as the sole member of Universal’s board, gave himself a $50,000 raise, to $650,000 a year. The company also forgave part of $1.6 million in loans to Mr. Altomare and his wife. The cash to pay that salary came from the sale of unregistered stock.

In Mr. Altomare’s view, the issues that bothered the judge are irrelevant. “Long and short of it,” he said in a statement issued by the company, “this is a naked short hallmark case in the making.”

Or it is proof that it can take a long time for the S.E.C. to stop a fraud.

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The Opinionator: Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellentrop

The instant reviews of “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s new movie, are beginning to trickle onto the Web. Eric Alterman, who has taken his “Altercation” blog from to Media Matters, calls it “by far Moore’s best film: good humored, compelling, and, amazingly, it’s actually fun.”

David Corn, Washington editor for The Nation, agrees that “Sicko” is “the best film in the Moore canon.” “It’s not as tendentious as his earlier works,” Corn writes on Capital Games, his blog for The Nation. “It posits no conspiracy theories. The film skillfully blends straight comedy, black humor, tragedy, and advocacy. You laugh, you cry — literally. And you get mad.” (In 2004, Corn wrote in a Capital Games post that Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” was “overly conspiratorial” as well as “problematic and self-defeating.”)

On his personal blog, Corn adds of “Sicko”: “It does not reveal what most Americans don’t already know. But the film — quite moving in some parts, quite funny in others — presents a well-crafted indictment and diagnosis of a sick, sick system.”

Economist and libertarian Arnold Kling worries that Alterman and Corn are right about the film’s effectiveness, despite what he perceives as its flaws. “I found the movie to be very non-threatening intellectually, because it was so obviously one-sided,” Kling writes at his blog, EconLog. “Contrasting French yuppies with American homeless people does not really prove anything.” Still, Kling says:

On the other hand, it could have a tremendous political effect. The woman next to me broke down and wept during a scene in which a group of Cuban firefighters salutes three 9/11 rescue workers brought by Moore to Cuba for treatment. My guess is that this woman’s reaction to the film was more typical than mine.

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The Opinionator: Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellentrop

  • A new Gallup poll indicates that a record-low 14 percent of Americans have confidence in Congress, which puts Congress alongside H.M.O.s at the bottom of Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions rankings. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru warns Republicans not to get too giddy about these numbers. He writes at The Corner: “Republicans should not get too gleeful about this finding. If the public is just unhappy with all the politicians, they may take it out on the party they perceive to be in power — and that is still the Republicans.”

  • The many faces of moderation: The Wall Street Journal editorial page says Michael Bloomberg and his fans are wrong to believe “that there is a large American center unserved by our two-party system.” Instead, there are many small centers that are often in conflict:

    This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of moderates in America, but moderation takes many forms. Antigun, pro-gay-rights, vaguely pro-business (but tax increasing) Mike Bloomberg is one sort. Pro-gun, economically populist Jon Tester, the junior Senator from Montana, is another, different sort. Pro-war Democrat Joe Lieberman is yet another kind. Their differences from each other are at least as important as their supposed moderateness.

  • Don’t blame Carl Bernstein or Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. if they failed to pen interesting tomes about Hillary Clinton, says Steven Stark in The Boston Phoenix. The junior senator from New York is a congenital bore:

    The press’s assumption about Hillary has always been that she’s the power behind the throne: the smart, savvy one at Yale Law School, who got better grades but postponed her own political career for the benefit of her husband. David Brock wrote an earlier biography, The Education of Hillary Rodham, that advanced this thesis, making the claim that Hillary, not Bill, was the leading light of the twosome.

    There’s only one problem with this theory: there isn’t evidence to support it.

    Stark adds, “You can’t write a good life story about a rather boring and unlikable personage who’s never done enough to merit a lengthy biography in her own right, even if she is married to someone as interesting as Bill.”

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TWO FOR THE ROAD: In Africa With Nick Kristof

The most bizarre experience on this trip so far has been the visit to General Laurent Nkunda. It’s hardly an everyday occurrence to go to the military camp of an actual “warlord” who is accused of raping and massacring thousands. (He prefers to be referred to as “liberator of the people”, and denies all allegations against him.) That a journalist well known for opposing him had just been assassinated in the Congo, and that General Nkunda made several references to our security, made us apprehensive during the interview and cautious in subsequent reporting.

One of the most striking parts of the interview is the religious fervor with which General Nkunda led his troops. Apparently, he is very influenced by the evangelist movement, and as a pastor in the Pentecostal church, he helps to convert and baptize his troops. He proudly sported a pin, “Rebels for Christ.” Before each drink and meal, he and his faithful prayed. “We fight in the name of the Lord,” he told us. “That is what I tell all my troops. When they fight, they have God on their side.”

As a lapsed Christian, I have to admit that I don’t know much about Christianity. But something about Nkunda’s comments made me feel ill to my stomach. Was he really using God as a license to kill? Was it really his conviction that God was with him in battle, or was he using “the God card” as a way to manipulate and control his troops? It would not be the first time that the name of God has been used to consolidate power, and certainly not the first time religion has given hope and purpose to unemployed young men without good futures.

I spoke with another pastor in the Pentecostal church about my discomfort. This pastor lives quite a different life from Gen. Nkunda: Reverend Samuel Meyele is one of the pastors working for HEAL Africa hospital who counsels women victims of sexual violence. There are no international warrants out for his arrest, only international praise.

According to Pastor Samuel, Nkunda’s faith at one point seemed real. Pastor Samuel recalls when Nkunda first joined a neighboring Pentecostal church in Goma. He and Nkunda were even friends at one point. When Nkunda first started leading his troops into war, Pastor Samuel said that none of the local churches would believe it. They were finally convinced that he was the one leading the crimes and atrocities, and his own church ended up excommunicating him. “What he does now, it is not part of the church. It is not right. He can call himself Pastor and Pentecostal, but this is not what we believe.”

Pastor Samuel sees firsthand the spoils of Nkunda’s “religious” mission. So does Sister Dominique, a Polish nun who runs a feeding center and hospital in Rutshuru province. For seven years, she has seen children who are severely malnourished, mothers who are starving to death, and people of all ages displaced, injured, and despondent. We asked her to explain how it is possible for her and the soldiers working for General Nkunda to both be working for God. “All people fighting say that they do so for God,” she responded, with tears in her eyes. “But if they are stealing, raping, killing, they do not understand God. It is not God they work for.”

I lie awake at night thinking about our experiences in the Congo. Meeting this charismatic General who sounds like a preacher is superimposed with seeing the villages destroyed and hearing the stories of those who lives were cut short because of conflict. To be fair, other “warlords” and rebel groups are also implicated in the conflict. And I may not know much about Christianity, or God. But the basic values of humanity are such that killing and maiming innocent people—in anyone’s name—is just wrong. That General Nkunda is able to use religion as a rallying cry to the point of committing such atrocities is testament to the depth of the problems and the erosion of human values in the Congo.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Student, a Teacher and a Glimpse of War

Published: June 21, 2007


I’m taking a student, Leana Wen, and a teacher, Will Okun, along with me on this trip to Africa. Here in this thatch-roofed village in the hills of eastern Congo, we had a glimpse of war, and Leana suddenly found herself called to perform.

Villagers took what looked like a bundle of rags out of one thatch-roof hut and laid it on the ground. Only it wasn’t a bunch of rags; it was a woman dying of starvation.

The woman, Yohanita Nyiahabimama, 41, weighed perhaps 60 pounds. She was conscious and stared at us with bright eyes, whispering answers to a few questions. When she was moved, she screamed in pain, for her buttocks were covered with ulcerating bedsores.

Leana, who had just graduated from medical school at Washington University, quickly examined Yohanita.

“If we don’t get her to a hospital very soon, she will die,” Leana said bluntly. “We have to get her to a hospital.”

There was nothing special about Yohanita except that she was in front of us. In villages throughout the region, people just like her are dying by the thousands — of a deadly mixture of war and poverty.

Instead of spending a few hundred dollars trying to save Yohanita, who might die anyway, we could spend that money buying vaccines or mosquito nets to save a far larger number of children in other villages.

And yet — how can you walk away from a human being who will surely die if you do so?

So we spoke to Simona Pari of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has built a school in the village and helped people here survive as conflict has raged around them. Simona immediately agreed to use her vehicle to transport Yohanita to a hospital.

The village found a teenage girl who could go with Yohanita and help look after her, and the family agreed that it would be best to have her taken not to the local public hospital but to the fine hospital in Goma run by Heal Africa, an outstanding aid group with strong American connections (

Now, nearly four days later, Yohanita is on the road to recovery, lying on a clean bed in the Heal Africa Hospital. Leana saved one of her first patients.

What almost killed Yohanita was starvation in a narrow sense, but more broadly she is one more victim of the warfare that has already claimed four million lives in Congo since 1998. Even 21st-century wars like Congo’s — the most lethal conflict since World War II — kill the old-fashioned way, by starving people or exposing them to disease.

That’s what makes wars in the developing world so deadly, for they kill not only with guns and machetes but also in much greater numbers with diarrhea, malaria, AIDS and malnutrition.

The people here in Malehe were driven out of their village by rampaging soldiers in December. Yohanita’s family returned to their home a few months later, but their crops and livestock had been taken. Then Yohanita had a miscarriage and the family spent all its money saving her — which meant that they ran out of food.

“We used to have plenty to eat, but now we have nothing,” Yohanita’s mother, Anastasie, told us. “We’ve had nothing to eat but bananas since the beginning of May.” (To see video of our visit and read blogs by Leana and Will, go to

I’m under no delusion that our intervention makes a difference to Congo (though it did make quite a difference to Yohanita). The way to help Congo isn’t to take individual starving people to the hospital but to work to end the war — yet instead the war is heating up again here, in part because Congo is off the world’s radar.

One measure of the international indifference is the shortage of aid groups here: Neighboring Rwanda, which is booming economically, is full of aid workers. But this area of eastern Congo is far needier and yet is home to hardly any aid groups. World Vision is one of the very few American groups active here in the North Kivu area.

Just imagine that four million Americans or Europeans had been killed in a war, and that white families were starving to death as a result of that war. The victims in isolated villages here in Congo, like Yohanita, may be black and poor and anonymous, but that should make this war in Congo no less an international priority.

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog,

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Republicans Losing the West

Published: June 21, 2007


He was loud, he was blustery and he was clear: our country is being overrun by Mexicans. To back his bark, he wrote, “Whatever It Takes,” as subtle as a cactus poke. He had money, and he had the power of office, a 12-year incumbency.

In the end, J. D. Hayworth, a Republican, was kicked out of his Congressional seat here last year. In the glossy white suburbs of Phoenix, immigrant-bashing backfired.

Farther south, in a district that is ground zero in the border wars — the seared-over patch of Arizona desert where the Minutemen patrol, more Mayberry than Concord — another Republican took an even harsher stance. The anti-immigration extremist, Randy Graf, was crushed.

For Republicans in Arizona, the result was a net loss of two Congressional seats.

Americans are genuinely conflicted and troubled about porous borders and the 12 million or more illegal immigrants in our midst. But to hear politicians who have been scorched by the blowhard fringe tell it, they’re facing a tidal wave of opposition to a consensus change in the status quo.

Last week, Senator Trent Lott, the Republican whip, blamed talk radio for the possibly fatal collapse of the immigration reform bill.

“Talk radio is running America,” he told The Times. “We have to deal with that problem.”

Just a few years out of probation for praising the Old Confederacy vision of a Paleolithic senator, Mr. Lott knows what it’s like to be burned by free speech friction. But he is wrong to confuse the medium with the electorate.

The front lines of this problem are in the fast-growing states of the American West. And the closer you get to the border, the more voters back politicians who are looking for middle ground — and punish those who follow the rant-for-ratings route.

In just the last six years, Arizona’s population grew by 20 percent, Nevada’s by 25 percent, Colorado’s by 10 percent and New Mexico’s by 7.5 percent. These four states may be the biggest battleground in next year’s presidential race, with 29 electoral votes — more than Florida or Ohio.

Hispanics make up 28 percent of Arizona, 24 percent of Nevada, 20 percent of Colorado and 43 percent of New Mexico. The rap is that they don’t vote. Not yet, at least. But they’re the fastest-growing part of the electorate.

Still, on the air it’s open war against the browning of America — tinged with slurs that disrespect all Hispanics. Consider Hayworth, who gives helium a bad name. Ousted from his seat, he now uses the megaphone of a Phoenix talk station to promote his solution: all undocumented immigrants would be given 120 days to leave the country — or face a massive, forceful roundup and deportation.

Right. And this would be done, no doubt, by the same people who couldn’t stop a single tuberculosis carrier from entering the country.

The syndicated talker Neal Boortz chuckles at the human collision along an advanced border fence. “I don’t care if Mexicans pile up against that fence like tumbleweeds in the Santa Ana winds,” he said on Monday. And two hosts of something called the “Patriot Radio News Hour” here mocked the Hispanic Games, held last weekend in Phoenix. They suggested “jumping the fence” and “leaving the scene of an accident” as competitive events for Latino athletes. Ha-ha.

Democrats are laughing all the way to a new Western majority. In 2004, they picked up a Senate and a Congressional seat in Colorado, with two Hispanic brothers in cowboy hats. And they did it with counties where an NPR liberal is hard to find.

“Arizona is in play like never before,” said David Waid, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party. “And the Republicans are literally handing it to us.”

Some Republicans know this. Nationwide, Hispanic support for Republican candidates dropped 10 points from 2004 to 2006 — to about 30 percent of the vote. Yes, this state’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, favor the comprehensive immigration bill. And yes, President Bush is the bill’s chief proponent.

But pragmatism is being drowned out by the bullies with electronic bullhorns, who’ve got their party leaders running scared.

“If they get their way and the bill dies, so too may Republican electoral prospects for the foreseeable future,” wrote Clint Bolick, a conservative scholar, in The Arizona Republic this week.

Remember that prediction on Election Day 2008.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.

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A Plea to Let a Punishment Fit the Prank

Published: June 21, 2007


It is not Iraq. It is not Katrina. It is not Virginia Tech.

There are many injustices far worse than those visited on the Montrose 19, the high school seniors in Westchester facing felony charges and not allowed to take part in their graduation, scheduled for tomorrow, because of a prank that went awry.

But sometimes small stories say a lot, so let us return to a familiar place: high school, graduation weekend, kids doing something dumb and adults doing something dumber.

For those who missed it, this tale began on June 10, a Sunday, when 19 students at Hendrick Hudson High School here, using a key they were not supposed to have, entered the school at night and left dozens of cheap alarm clocks in the shape of butterflies or houses scattered about. Some were covered with duct tape to make it harder to shut them off or remove the batteries. They were set to go off at 9:15 the next morning, the last day of classes.

The idea was for the seniors to respond to the alarms by walking out of the building in triumph — 13 years of school and one great senior prank accomplished. Instead, when the police responded to an alarm at the school, they thought the clocks might be bombs. State troopers with bomb-sniffing dogs descended on the premises. It soon became apparent that the clocks were just clocks, but the 19 students were charged with a second-degree felony, placing false bombs, and were barred from the graduation ceremonies. And 31 who contributed money for the clocks were forced to do community service, mostly cleanup at the school, in order to join their classmates at the graduation.

If the e-mail response to my Sunday column about the Montrose 19 and interviews around town are any indication, most people seem to see the students’ behavior as clearly inappropriate and deserving of some punishment. They also see a gross overreaction on the part of the adults that says a lot more about the on-edge world these kids are stepping into than whatever graduation wisdom is likely to be dispensed at the ceremony they’ll miss tomorrow.

“When a harmless prank results in 19 high school students being charged with felonies, we have surely traded our liberty for security, and faux security at that,” wrote one reader. “I would like to hear how we are safer if these kids go to jail.”

Well, it’s not likely anyone will go to jail, and chances are the charges will be reduced somewhere in the legal process. School officials said they were standing by their decision to bar the 19, who include many of the top students and athletes in the class, from participating in tomorrow’s ceremony. One father said that he and his son intended to show up and sit in the audience, though he did not want his name used for fear of further provoking school officials. “If they want to make a scene by kicking me out, I’ll make a bigger one by not leaving,” he said.

High school pranks may be as old as high school, but it seems that with Web sites offering a menu of pranks du jour and everything finding its way to YouTube, the standard of excellence is being raised at the same time that society’s tolerance level is being lowered. This is not a good thing.

TO take a much stupider example, there was probably never a good time for one recent prank in Stamford, Conn., where five teenagers staged phony kidnappings by stuffing a friend into a car trunk, speeding out of a crowded parking lot and recording the episode for posterity. This would be bad at any time, but is worse in the post-9/11 era.

Nothing in Montrose compared with any of that, and interviews with students indicated that part of the appeal of this prank was that it seemed harmless: no damage, nobody hurt. But if there are graduation life lessons here, you can begin with these.

For the students: Actions have consequences. It’s a pretty nervous world out there. Just because something seems harmless on first or second glance doesn’t mean one shouldn’t give it a third look. Life is like high school, only the penalties get bigger for messing up. Your parents and grandparents get only one chance to watch you graduate from high school. Don’t blow it.

For the adults: Actions have consequences. It’s a pretty nervous world out there. Just how intent are we on jacking up the paranoia level? Life is like high school, only we ought to be sure that the penalties fit the offense. Parents and grandparents get only one chance to see their kids graduate from high school. You’d better have an awfully good reason and no better alternative if you want to take that moment away.


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