Saturday, June 30, 2007

When Is Enough Enough?

Published: June 30, 2007

Chances are you didn’t hear it, but on Thursday night Senator Hillary Clinton said, “If H.I.V./AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.”

Her comment came on the same day that a malevolent majority on the U.S. Supreme Court threw a brick through the window of voluntary school integration efforts.

There comes a time when people are supposed to get angry. The rights and interests of black people in the U.S. have been under assault for the longest time, and in the absence of an effective counterforce, that assault has only grown more brutal.

Have you looked at the public schools lately? Have you looked at the prisons? Have you looked at the legions of unemployed blacks roaming the neighborhoods of big cities across the country? These jobless African-Americans, so many of them men, are so marginal in the view of the wider society, so insignificant, so invisible, they aren’t even counted in the government’s official jobless statistics.

And now this new majority on the Supreme Court seems committed to a legal trajectory that would hurl blacks back to the bad old days of the Jim Crow era.

Where’s the outcry? Where’s the line in the sand that the prejudiced portion of the population is not allowed to cross?

Mrs. Clinton’s comment was made at a forum of Democratic presidential candidates at Howard University that was put together by Tavis Smiley, the radio and television personality, and broadcast nationally by PBS. The idea was to focus on issues of particular concern to African-Americans.

It’s discouraging that some of the biggest issues confronting blacks — the spread of AIDS, chronic joblessness and racial discrimination, for example — are not considered mainstream issues.

Senator John Edwards offered a disturbingly bleak but accurate picture of the lives of many young blacks: “When you have young African-American men who are completely convinced that they’re either going to die or go to prison and see absolutely no hope in their lives; when they live in an environment where the people around them don’t earn a decent wage; when they go to schools that are second-class schools compared to the wealthy suburban areas — they don’t see anything getting better.”

The difficult lives and often tragic fates of such young men are not much on the minds of so-called mainstream Americans, or the political and corporate elites who run the country. More noise needs to be made. There’s something very wrong with a passive acceptance of the degraded state in which so many African-Americans continue to live.

Mr. Smiley is also organizing a forum of Republican candidates to be held in September. I wholeheartedly applaud his efforts. But if black people were more angry, and if they could channel that anger into political activism — first and foremost by voting as though their lives and the lives of their children depended on it — there would not be a need to have separate political forums to address their concerns.

If black people could find a way to come together in sky-high turnouts on Election Day, if they showed up at polling booths in numbers close to the maximum possible turnout, if they could set the example for all other Americans about the importance of exercising the franchise, the politicians would not dare to ignore their concerns.

For black people, especially, the current composition of the Supreme Court should be the ultimate lesson in the importance of voting in a presidential election. No branch of the government has been more crucial than the judiciary in securing the rights and improving the lives of blacks over the past five or six decades.

George W. Bush, in a little more than six years, has tilted the court so radically that it is now, like the administration itself, relentlessly hostile to the interests of black people. That never would have happened if blacks had managed significantly more muscular turnouts in the 2000 and 2004 elections. (The war in Iraq would not have happened, either.)

There are, of course, many people, black and white, who are working on a vast array of important issues. But much, much more needs to be done. And blacks, in particular, need to intervene more directly in the public policy matters that concern them.

In the 1960s, there were radicals running around screaming about black power. But the real power in this country has always been the power of the vote. Black Americans have not come close to maximizing that power.

It’s not too late.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

The Murdoch Factor

Published: June 29, 2007

In October 2003, the nonpartisan Program on International Policy Attitudes published a study titled “Misperceptions, the media and the Iraq war.” It found that 60 percent of Americans believed at least one of the following: clear evidence had been found of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda; W.M.D. had been found in Iraq; world public opinion favored the U.S. going to war with Iraq.

The prevalence of these misperceptions, however, depended crucially on where people got their news. Only 23 percent of those who got their information mainly from PBS or NPR believed any of these untrue things, but the number was 80 percent among those relying primarily on Fox News. In particular, two-thirds of Fox devotees believed that the U.S. had “found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.”

So, does anyone think it’s O.K. if Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns Fox News, buys The Wall Street Journal?

The problem with Mr. Murdoch isn’t that he’s a right-wing ideologue. If that were all he was, he’d be much less dangerous. What he is, rather, is an opportunist who exploits a rule-free media environment — one created, in part, by conservative political power — by slanting news coverage to favor whoever he thinks will serve his business interests.

In the United States, that strategy has mainly meant blatant bias in favor of the Bush administration and the Republican Party — but last year Mr. Murdoch covered his bases by hosting a fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton’s Senate re-election campaign.

In Britain, Mr. Murdoch endorsed Tony Blair in 1997 and gave his government favorable coverage, “ensuring,” reports The New York Times, “that the new government would allow him to keep intact his British holdings.”

And in China, Mr. Murdoch’s organizations have taken care not to offend the dictatorship.

Now, Mr. Murdoch’s people rarely make flatly false claims. Instead, they usually convey misinformation through innuendo. During the early months of the Iraq occupation, for example, Fox gave breathless coverage to each report of possible W.M.D.’s, with little or no coverage of the subsequent discovery that it was a false alarm. No wonder, then, that many Fox viewers got the impression that W.M.D.’s had been found.

When all else fails, Mr. Murdoch’s news organizations simply stop covering inconvenient subjects.

Last year, Fox relentlessly pushed claims that the “liberal media” were failing to report the “good news” from Iraq. Once that line became untenable — well, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in the first quarter of 2007 daytime programs on Fox News devoted only 6 percent of their time to the Iraq war, compared with 18 percent at MSNBC and 20 percent at CNN.

What took Iraq’s place? Anna Nicole Smith, who received 17 percent of Fox’s daytime coverage.

Defenders of Mr. Murdoch’s bid for The Journal say that we should judge him not by Fox News but by his stewardship of the venerable Times of London, which he acquired in 1981. Indeed, the political bias of The Times is much less blatant than that of Fox News. But a number of former Times employees have said that there was pressure to slant coverage — and everyone I’ve seen quoted defending Mr. Murdoch’s management is still on his payroll.

In any case, do we want to see one of America’s two serious national newspapers in the hands of a man who has done so much to mislead so many? (The Washington Post, for all its influence, is basically a Beltway paper, not a national one. The McClatchy papers, though their Washington bureau’s reporting in the run-up to Iraq put more prestigious news organizations to shame, still don’t have The Journal’s ability to drive national discussion.)

There doesn’t seem to be any legal obstacle to the News Corporation’s bid for The Journal: F.C.C. rules on media ownership are mainly designed to prevent monopoly in local markets, not to safeguard precious national informational assets. Still, public pressure could help avert a Murdoch takeover. Maybe Congress should hold hearings.

If Mr. Murdoch does acquire The Journal, it will be a dark day for America’s news media — and American democracy. If there were any justice in the world, Mr. Murdoch, who did more than anyone in the news business to mislead this country into an unjustified, disastrous war, would be a discredited outcast. Instead, he’s expanding his empire.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Our Gas Guzzlers, Their Lives

Water levels have dropped at Lake Tanganyika in Bujumbura, Burundi.


If we need any more proof that life is unfair, it is that subsistence villagers here in Africa will pay with their lives for our refusal to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

When we think of climate change, we tend to focus on Alaskan villages or New Orleans hurricanes. But the people who will suffer the worst will be those living in countries like this, even though they don’t contribute at all to global warming.

My win-a-trip journey with a student and a teacher has taken us to Burundi, which the World Bank’s latest report shows to be the poorest country in the world. People in Burundi have an annual average income of $100, nearly one child in five dies before the age of five, and life expectancy is 45.

Against that grim backdrop, changing weather patterns in recent years have already caused crop failures — and when the crops fail here, people starve. In short, our greenhouse gases are killing people here.

“If the harvest fails in the West, then you have stocks and can get by,” said Gerard Rusuku, an agriculture scientist here who has been studying the impact of global warming in Africa. “Here, we’re much more vulnerable. If climate change causes a crop failure here, there’s famine.”

Guillaume Foliot of the World Food Program notes that farmers here overwhelmingly agree that the weather has already become more erratic, leading to lost crops. And any visitor can see that something is amiss: Africa’s “great lakes” are shrinking.

Burundi is on Lake Tanganyika, which is still a vast expanse of water. But the shoreline has retreated 50 feet in the last four years, and ships can no longer reach the port.

“Even the hippos are unhappy,” said Alexander Mbarubukeye, a fisherman on the lake, referring to the hippos that occasionally waddled into town before the lake retreated.

The biggest of Africa’s great lakes, Lake Victoria, was dropping by a vertical half-inch a day for much of last year. And far to the north, once enormous Lake Chad has nearly vanished. The reasons for the dipping lake levels seem to include climate change.

Greenhouse gases actually have the greatest impact at high latitudes — the Arctic and Antarctica. But the impact there isn’t all bad (Canada will gain a northwest passage), and the countries there are rich enough to absorb the shocks.

In contrast, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned this year that the consequences for Africa will be particularly harsh because of the region’s poverty and vulnerability. It foresees water shortages and crop failures in much of Africa.

“Projected reductions in yield in some countries could be as much as 50 percent by 2020, and crop net revenues could fall as much as 90 percent,” the panel warned. It also cautioned that warming temperatures could lead malaria to spread to highland areas. Another concern is that scarcities of food and water will trigger wars. More than five million lives have already been lost since 1994 in wars in Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, and one factor was competition for scarce resources.

“It seems to me rather like pouring petrol onto a burning fire,” Jock Stirrup, the chief of the British defense staff, told a meeting in London this month. He noted that climate change could cause weak states to collapse.

Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president, describes climate change as “the latest form of aggression” by rich countries against Africa. He has a point. Charles Ehrhart, a Care staff member in Kenya who works full time on climate-change issues, says that the negative impact of the West’s carbon emissions will overwhelm the positive effects of aid.

“It’s at the least disastrous and quite possibly catastrophic,” Mr. Ehrhart said of the climate effects on Africa. “Life was difficult, but with climate change it turns deadly.”

“That’s what hits the alarm bells for an organization like Care,” he added. “How can we ever achieve our mission in this situation?”

All this makes it utterly reckless that we fail to institute a carbon tax or at least a cap-and-trade system for emissions. The cost of our environmental irresponsibility will be measured in thousands of children dying of hunger, malaria and war.

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

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Domestic Disturbances: A Blog at the NY Times by Judith Warner

Well, it took me two weeks to work up the nerve, but I finally read all your comments about my last Hillary Clinton column and see that we have had a pretty major misunderstanding.

I never meant in that piece to take on the topic of why women, in general, do or do not like Hillary Clinton. Rather, what I wanted to explore was the phenomenon of “Hillary Hate” – why is it that so many women, particularly within Clinton’s ostensible cohort, have the reaction, when her name comes up, of shrugging their shoulders, closing their eyes, waving their hands in a shoo-ing away gesture and saying, with feigned horror, “I don’t know what it is about her, but I just can’t stand her.”

I was not talking about women who voice reasoned opposition to her vote enabling the Iraq war, or her support of anti-flag burning legislation or her handling of her failed health care initiative of the first Clinton administration. I meant rather to explore some possible roots behind the “I-just-hate-her” sentiment that dates back to 1992 (or even further) and remains alive and well today.

That’s the kind of sentiment that Melinda Henneberger, the author of “If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear,” was talking about when she told me that Hillary “rubs a lot of women who are like her the wrong way.” It’s what the Clinton’s campaign adviser Ann Lewis was referring to when she rolled her eyes (at least, that’s what I imagined her doing via the phone) and said, “We’ve been through all this before.”

The irrational, gut-level kind of Hillary-hate — not, again, opposition to her political actions or views — has fascinated me now for more than 15 years. It was the topic that propelled me to write a biography of the then-revolutionary new First Lady-to-be back in 1992. Back then, the hatred of Hillary could be best summed up, as the American Spectator put it, as a reaction to her perceived “consuming ambition, inflexibility of purpose, domination of a pliable husband, and an unsettling lack of tender human feeling.”

In 2000, the hatred had shifted to become a condemnation of her dependency upon her husband, her over-flexibility of purpose and her excessively tender human feelings. And yet, in the Senate race, the old words were bandied about again: “Lady Macbeth,” “phony,” “ambitious.”

And now here we are, again.

There is something enduring about Hillary that — independent of policy and politics — rubs some people the wrong way. It used to be her headband. Now it’s her voice, her life of compromise, her “poll-driven” scriptedness, (“She’s all brain and no backbone, a carefully programmed ventriloquist’s dummy, controlled by poll results and spin doctors”) her “appearance as an angry, insecure, compromised person with a big chip on her shoulder over something or other, who covers it up with a fairly sophisticated kind of bluster” and, of course, her ambition.

Much of this comes back to the matter of her “authenticity,” or lack thereof, although it seems to me that the frozenness, the defensiveness, the shut-downedness that people so criticize now when they see her is probably the most “authentic” reaction a person could possibly have to the public flogging she’s long endured. Openness, trust, chattiness, vulnerability would probably be great things for Hillary to project, if she could pull them off; but there’s no way, humanly, that they could ever be real, given what she’s lived through.

Say what you like (“While I find this essay thoughtful, I also find it feeding the old presumption that the political choices women make are more emotional — and thereby less logical — than the ones made by men”), you’ll never convince me that women’s reactions to Hillary are primarily rational. My saying this has nothing to do with my view of women. It has to do with the fact that poll after poll – and now a fascinating new book by political psychologist Drew Westen, “The Political Brain” – indicate that voters, all voters, are primarily irrational. They have their issues (and single-issue voters do tend to vote only according to their issues), but the instincts that generally cause them to cleave to one candidate over another are, on the basest level, Westen argues, well, base.

This doesn’t change according to education or income level; it’s neurologically hard-wired. Even our most reasoned and conscious political decisions are in fact motivated, it seems, by our dark and emotional unconscious.

It has often been said that the figure of Hillary Clinton functions like a Rorschach test, drawing out whatever anger, anxiety, disgust, fear and hope circulate just below the surface of the national consciousness. So what does it mean if someone stares at her image and sees someone who just “gets under my skin”?

I made a stab the other week at analyzing that particular reaction to the Hillary inkblot. I did it provocatively, peevishly, perhaps, even a bit too nastily in tone. (Sorry about that: too many readers read my love letter to my girls as an anti-motherhood rant, and that unleashed, shall we say, a little bit of unconscious aggression.)

Now I’ll throw the question back at you: policy aside, what do you think we see when we look at Hillary Clinton?

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Published: June 27, 2007


A group of high school Presidential Scholars visiting the White House on Monday surprised President Bush by slipping him a handwritten letter pleading with him to not let America become known for torture and urging him to stick to the Geneva Conventions with terror detainees.

The president reassured the teenagers that the United States does not torture. Then the vice president unleashed a pack of large dogs on the kids, running them off the White House lawn, before he shut down the Presidential Scholars program and abolished high schools.

Since it’s rare that Mr. Bush ever sees groups that have not been prescreened to be nice to him, he made the mistake of opening the letter in front of the students and was surprised to learn that he has made many Americans ashamed by subverting values that the country has always held dear, like abiding by the Constitution and respecting human dignity.

Mari Oye from Wellesley, Mass., who is headed to Yale in the fall, handed W. the letter signed by 50 students as they posed for a group picture. She told John Roberts on CNN that her mother had been a Presidential Scholar back in 1968 and always regretted not saying something to Lyndon Johnson about the Vietnam War. She also said her grandparents were Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II, so she has compassion for those “in a similar situation.”

“We asked him to remove the signing statement attached to the anti-torture bill, which would have allowed presidential power to make exemptions to the ban on torture,” she said. “I really feel strongly about this issue and also about the treatment of some Arab- and Muslim-Americans after September 11th.”

The president was trying to talk to the students about No Child Left Behind. Maybe that program’s working better than we thought if these kids are able to pull off such a knowing note left behind.

The White House got another unpleasant surprise Monday when the ordinarily compliant Dick Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee who has gone along with the Bush administration on every Iraq vote, came to the Senate floor to upbraid the president on his Iraq policy in a 50-minute speech.

“Those who offer constructive criticism of the surge strategy are not defeatists, any more than those who warn against a precipitous withdrawal are militarists,” the 75-year-old senator told the deserted chamber.

Another Republican on the committee, George Voinovich, sent a letter to the president yesterday, suggesting it’s time to start pulling troops out. “My heart has been heavy for a long time,” he told Jeff Zeleny of The Times. “We’re talking $620 billion. We’re talking over 3,500 people killed.” He said he keeps a photo of an Ohio Marine killed in Iraq on his desk “so I don’t forget, O.K.?” Mr. Lugar said the ’08 race is on, so time is scarce for a bipartisan solution.

Dick Cheney, the president of the Senate, immediately expelled Mr. Lugar and appointed himself the new senator from Indiana. It was a busy day of Constitutional shape-shifting for the vice president, who had earlier nominated and confirmed himself to the Supreme Court, so that he could roll back judicial decisions tempering his desire for torture galore, and then morphed back into his executive branch role to bar the door to the Oval Office sandbox and prevent Condi and Bob Gates from giving W. the plan he wanted to close down Gitmo.

Once his BFF Rummy was pushed out, Vice mentally absorbed the role of Defense Secretary into his own portfolio. He allows Mr. Gates — that pragmatic meddler from the skeptical world of Daddy Bush — to keep Rummy’s chair warm, but the new Pentagon chief is certainly not included in the super-secret paper flow Vice created to always get his own way. And Mr. Cheney never acknowledges the power of any secretary of state, be it Colin or Condi. Diplomacy is for wimps.

The Black Adder, David Addington, the Vice’s enforcer of all things evil, sent a snippy reply to a letter from Senator John Kerry yesterday, asking why Vice says his dual role in the legislative and executive branches means he doesn’t have to catalog any classified papers. What could those papers be? Cooked intelligence on invading Iraq? Ill-gotten profits for Halliburton? More chicanery about Scooter Libby? Gitmo and Abu Ghraib torture memos? So many embarrassing options, so little oversight.

In essence, the bizarre response is that nothing applies to the vice president because the vice president is everything. Because he is everything, he relaunched the Swift Boats against Skipper Kerry.

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No Thought Control Needed

Published: June 27, 2007


Take a stroll in Hyde Park these days, with the summer’s shimmer to accompany you, and, depending on your generation, you might just get transported back to the Pink Floyd free concert almost 40 years ago with Roger Waters and David Gilmour at the helm of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.”

A line from that song speaks of “the man who raged at a wall,” and the sound most likely to draw the dreamer back from summer reveries in what is now Gordon Brown’s Britain is that of conversation in Hungarian or Hindi or Hausa, a polyglot symphony that captures this country’s wall-defeating openness.

With the end of Tony Blair’s decade as prime minister, and the passage of power to Brown, the “feral beast” of the British press is gnawing at the Blair legacy. A gloomy view would cite the abyss between the super-rich and the poor of Europe’s “Richistan,” betrayals of trust, enduring health service woes, and of course Iraq.

But, alongside peace in Northern Ireland, I choose openness as the overriding achievement. Perhaps you need to have grown up in an insular Britain with its everyday bigotries, its loss-of-empire chip on the shoulder, and its snotty references to snail-eating Gauls, to appreciate the enormity of the restorative distance Blair has covered.

The process had begun before him and barrier-breaking globalization has helped. But if the City is now the world’s largest financial center, and Poles work England’s farms, and French youth have been Channel-crossing in droves to find jobs, it is because Blair and Brown, the odd couple of politics, chose freedom - for the Bank of England and European Union workers alike.

With openness came tolerance. The nearest thing to a royal wedding here in recent years was the celebration of the civil partnership of Sir Elton John and David Furnish, a gay union covered by the BBC with a reverence once unimaginable. The squirming British have grown more comfortable in their skin, and more comfortable with the skin colors and sexual inclinations of others.

Blair, with his sunny ease, has personified this shift. Which brings us to the odd-couple business. Brown, the smoldering son of a Presbyterian minister, the introvert to Blair’s extrovert, the Scot to Blair’s cosmopolitan, is an altogether different politician.

To say Pangloss is ceding to Macbeth would be unfair to both men, but not entirely. Blair never allowed a setback to upend him. Brown will have to fight his inclination to brood as he moves from a budget-setting job he could plan to Star Wars at Number 10, where everything comes at you at once.

The style will change, but what about the content? Brown has presided over Britain’s economic miracle. Anyone who imagines he will try a tax-and-spend approach to bridging the rich-poor divide is deluded. He promised equal-opportunity change in assuming Blair’s mantle, but has ruled out a return “to the failed approaches of the past.”

The relationship with President George W. Bush will be awkward at first. The president likes proofs of fealty. Brown, an election looming in the next couple of years, has to mark some distance or risk the return of the poodle epithet.

But there will be no abrupt reversal on Iraq or abandonment of the trans-Atlantic bond. If Brown chose to quote Abraham Lincoln, speaking of “the better angels of our nature” in describing his social conscience, it is because he is a convinced Atlanticist.

Blair has departed just as he got the Europe he wants, with market-reforming, America-drawn leaders in Berlin and Paris. Wondering how the Iraq war run-up would have unfolded with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy is a beguiling what-if. But the hypothetical in history is as intriguing as it is ultimately useless.

Brown should also benefit from this new political configuration, with its consensus for a more open and competitive continent, even as he keeps Britain outside euroland. In his calibration of Britain’s role as trans-Atlantic bridge, he will have to bear in mind that Bush now has other European leaders he can turn to if necessary.

For a decade, the waking thoughts of Blair and Brown have been each other. A fundamental change is that Brown will govern without Blair - off to pit his bend-the-world-to-my-convictions certainties against the ultimate challenge of the Middle East. Relieved, or bereft, of the other, they confront enormous tests.

But then these are the guys who turned Labour into a pro-business party, confounding the Conservatives to this day. They are the architects of pro-openness transformation. As Pink Floyd put it: “We don’t need no thought control.”


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The Whole World Is Watching

Published: June 27, 2007

Three years ago, I was catching a plane at Boston’s Logan airport and went to buy some magazines for the flight. As I approached the cash register, a woman coming from another direction got there just behind me — I thought. But when I put my money down to pay, the woman said in a very loud voice: “Excuse me! I was here first!” And then she fixed me with a piercing stare that said: “I know who you are.” I said I was very sorry, but I was clearly there first.

If that happened today, I would have had a very different reaction. I would have said: “Miss, I’m so sorry. I am entirely in the wrong. Please, go ahead. And can I buy your magazines for you? May I buy your lunch? Can I shine your shoes?”

Why? Because I’d be thinking there is some chance this woman has a blog or a camera in her cellphone and could, if she so chose, tell the whole world about our encounter — entirely from her perspective — and my utterly rude, boorish, arrogant, thinks-he-can-butt-in-line behavior. Yikes!

When everyone has a blog, a MySpace page or Facebook entry, everyone is a publisher. When everyone has a cellphone with a camera in it, everyone is a paparazzo. When everyone can upload video on YouTube, everyone is filmmaker. When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. We’re all public figures now. The blogosphere has made the global discussion so much richer — and each of us so much more transparent.

The implications of all this are the subject of a new book by Dov Seidman, founder and C.E.O. of LRN, a business ethics company. His book is simply called “How.” Because Seidman’s simple thesis is that in this transparent world “how” you live your life and “how” you conduct your business matters more than ever, because so many people can now see into what you do and tell so many other people about it on their own without any editor. To win now, he argues, you have to turn these new conditions to your advantage.

For young people, writes Seidman, this means understanding that your reputation in life is going to get set in stone so much earlier. More and more of what you say or do or write will end up as a digital fingerprint that never gets erased. Our generation got to screw up and none of those screw-ups appeared on our first job résumés, which we got to write. For this generation, much of what they say, do or write will be preserved online forever. Before employers even read their résumés, they’ll Google them.

“The persistence of memory in electronic form makes second chances harder to come by,” writes Seidman. “In the information age, life has no chapters or closets; you can leave nothing behind, and you have nowhere to hide your skeletons. Your past is your present.” So the only way to get ahead in life will be by getting your “hows” right.

Ditto in business. Companies that get their hows wrong won’t be able to just hire a P.R. firm to clean up the mess by a taking a couple of reporters to lunch — not when everyone is a reporter and can talk back and be heard globally.

But this also creates opportunities. Today “what” you make is quickly copied and sold by everyone. But “how” you engage your customers, “how” you keep your promises and “how” you collaborate with partners — that’s not so easy to copy, and that is where companies can now really differentiate themselves.

“When it comes to human conduct there is tremendous variation, and where a broad spectrum of variation exists, opportunity exists,” writes Seidman. “The tapestry of human behavior is so varied, so rich and so global that it presents a rare opportunity, the opportunity to outbehave the competition.”

How can you outbehave your competition? In Michigan, Seidman writes, one hospital taught its doctors to apologize when they make mistakes, and dramatically cut their malpractice claims. In Texas, a large auto dealership allowed every mechanic to spend freely whatever company money was necessary to do the job right, and saw their costs actually decline while customer satisfaction improved. A New York street doughnut-seller trusted his customers to make their own change and found he could serve more people faster and build the loyalty that keeps them coming back.

“We do not live in glass houses (houses have walls); we live on glass microscope slides ... visible and exposed to all,” he writes. So whether you’re selling cars or newspapers (or just buying one at the newsstand), get your hows right — how you build trust, how you collaborate, how you lead and how you say you’re sorry. More people than ever will know about it when you do — or don’t.

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Basic Instincts: Life on Two, Four, Six and Eight Legs

The other day in an interview in The New York Times Magazine, Al Gore’s daughter Kristin revealed that when she was a child, she couldn’t stand to think about wrists. All those veins and tendons. Probably didn’t like to gnaw chicken bones either. Too squeamish.

And when her sisters found out, did they promptly don four-button gloves out of sympathy and respect, to spare their delicate sister the dreadful sight? On the contrary, they waved the naked veiny insides of their wrists in her face. The horror, the horror.

But this is what siblings do, isn’t it?

The strange nature of the sibling relationship has been in the news a lot lately. A study last week, for instance, demonstrated that first-born children, those conscientious overachievers, really do turn out smarter than second-borns, and this predictably stirred up lots of preening and muttering, respectively.

But the sibling news that really caught my attention had to do with the origins of altruism, and also its seeming opposite, our tendency to band together in groups and gleefully crush the enemy — the best and worst in human nature. And the explanation put forward last month — “nested tug-of-war” theory — sounded a lot like family life as we know it.

O.K., there’s a caveat: Like a lot of the best behavioral theorizing, the paper by H. Kern Reeve at Cornell and Bert Hölldobler at Arizona State University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was actually about ant siblings, not people. But we can read between the lines.

The paper suggested that the dynamic of groups is a constant back-and-forth between one tug-of-war nested inside another. The first tug-of-war is selfish competition for resources within the group. The second is the group’s competition with rival groups. And here’s the startling part: Self-sacrificing devotion to the group, meaning cooperation and altruism, is largely a byproduct of kill-the-enemy competition.

An old Arab saying puts roughly the same idea in a family context: Me against my brother; my brother and me against our cousins; our cousins, my brother and me against the world. But anybody who grew up with siblings knows the feeling. Karenna and Sarah Gore might well have flashed their wrists at sister Kristin. But if some non-family member tried it … well, closing ranks against outsiders is also what siblings do.

Scientists have been trying to explain the origin of altruism and cooperative behavior for decades now, on the theory that the urge to give away resources and individual advantage would never have become part of human nature unless it provided a benefit to individuals displaying the trait.

But none of the familiar scientific explanations has really hit the mark: For instance, reciprocal altruism says we do it out of I’ll-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine self-interest. (But then why do we leave a fat tip in a restaurant we never intend to re-visit?) Kin selection says we help close relatives because it’s a vicarious way to get more of our shared gene pool into future generations. (So why do we also help total strangers?) And handicap theory says altruism is just a big gaudy show of prowess, to attract mates. (Yes, but then why do some donors remain anonymous?)

The new theory got its start when two celebrated co-authors, Hölldobler and the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for their 1990 book “The Ants,” couldn’t get past the altruism question while collaborating on a new book. The two of them published a paper together in 2005 wondering aloud if natural selection might actually operate at the group level, favoring colonies or tribes that muster the highest level of internal cooperation and altruism.

This was, by Wilson’s own admission, heresy. Evolutionary biologists have been arguing adamantly for the past 40 years that the rough-and-tumble of life favors individuals, not groups, to pass on their genes to future generations. But individual selection didn’t adequately explain the behavior of highly social and cooperative species like humans or especially ants, where individuals may willingly give up their own reproductive future, or even their lives, for the good of the group.

According to Hölldobler, the “nested tug-of-war” idea got its start when he and Reeve were thinking about certain primitive ant species that don’t fit the selfless ant stereotype. They live in small colonies, and individual selection is still very much in play. Nobody gives up reproductive rights for the good of the group. They also communicate poorly and disagree about who does the chores. (Sound familiar?)

So how did other ant species evolve from this chaotic start to the point that millions of selfless individuals in a colony can live together in almost perfect harmony? Wilson emphasizes group selection. Reeve and Hölldobler argue that it’s still about individual selection and kin selection. But the group gradually became more important because of ecological pressure, in the form of patchy resources and fierce competition from rival colonies. And the tug-of-war for individual advantage within the group gave way to cooperative behaviors as the tug-of-war for advantage against rival groups became more pressing.

So let’s say this is true of people, too. The disturbing implication of the “nested tug-of-war” idea is that altruism is a byproduct of enmity: It’s easier to give up what we want, to sacrifice for a sister or a cousin, if we feel threatened by some outside group. And a long evolutionary history of living with that sort of threat is also why we still slip so easily into rivalries against other high schools, or political parties, or ethnic groups.

Knowing this “doesn’t justify anything,” says Hölldobler. “But if children understand that there is this trait, and it was adaptive in the past, but it’s not very adaptive now,” they can work around the impulse to engage in pointless group rivalries and cultivate altruism in less antagonistic contexts. On the other hand, he admits, we might not enjoy football games as much.

Or political campaigns. In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, according to Kristin Gore in The Times Magazine interview, Republicans bussed in protesters to stand outside the vice presidential mansion and scream, “Get out of Cheney’s house.” The Gore family apparently managed to refrain from “turning up the stereo to drown out the chants,” Noriega-fashion. But being under siege by the rival group no doubt re-kindled the family’s sense of unity and muted any hint of a tug-of-war within.

Call me a romantic, but I like to imagine the three sisters getting up together and going to the windows to brandish their delicate wrists, causing the horrified barbarians outside to flee in howling panic back under the rocks from which they had apparently crawled.

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HOME FIRES: Five Iraq War Veterans on Their Return to American Life

I will always remember that day in 2004 when I sat on the business side of a Lieutenant Colonel’s desk as he “invited” me to go to Iraq with his battalion. Now, as a company commander in the Utah National Guard, one of my duties has been to send others to fight the war in Iraq.

Nor will I forget the day I sat on the other side of the desk and told my soldiers they were being deployed. It was a recent drill weekend, and a sister battalion from Utah had received their deployment alert. My commander issued me a written order to provide soldiers to complement that battalion. Suggestions were made to hold a formation, and simply make the announcement, calling out the names of those who would be deploying.

I chose instead to notify each soldier individually. It took most of the day. Some were young and eager: “Roger that, sir. No problem.” They simply acknowledged that their chance to serve was at hand, and they did so with a smile and a certain eager look in their eyes. These kids joined the Army after this war started. They were ready and willing participants. Others were family men, working on their master’s degrees or running their own businesses, and dealing with a multitude of personal issues. Some were close to retirement. I wanted to notify them all of this massive adventure they would be undertaking, this guaranteed change of perspective, one on one, giving each a chance to ask questions, get angry, cry, or express whatever they wished in private.

As each soldier left my office I stood up and shook their hands, wished them luck, and told them not to hesitate to call me day or night if they needed anything. I also dismissed them for the rest of the day. It was a small gesture, but a clear statement that I understood the nature of the sacrifices they were about to make. “Take this time to get home and let your family know, O.K.? And I appreciate all your work here in headquarters,” I’d say. I think they could tell by my look that I understood exactly how they felt.

They left last week. The send-off was at the exact airbase here in Salt Lake City where I landed one year ago. There was a battalion of about 450 soldiers leaving that morning for a one-year deployment, and some of them were from my unit. Over 1000 family members turned out. As you might expect, there were speeches, banners, and lots of hugs and tears. I spent the morning shaking hands, giving words of encouragement, and saying to my buddies who have already been to Iraq once before, “You know what to do. So just do it and bring them all back, O.K.?”

As I stood there on the tarmac watching these soldiers pick up their bags and wave before climbing the stairs into the plane, I looked at the huge crowd of spouses, parents, brothers, and sisters crying. I could see sadness mixed with pride. And I saw little children sitting on shoulders, crying intensely as their Daddy grew smaller in the distance, or teenagers bending their heads into a loved one’s chest. Their tears were not easy for me to endure, and I was glad to be wearing sunglasses. As the planes taxied away, the Commanding General stood on the flight line and saluted them.

I am still in the Army today, but like many others I have made a personal decision to enter “inactive status.” I’ll be out in the next couple of months. My superior officers are aware of my decision. The choice took me most of a year to make, but after careful deliberation it is an easy one. I’m proud to join the ranks of American combat veterans. And yet I know that I would never leave my kids again. This fact is at the heart of my decision and I must say that I am very excited. All I need now is a job.

These stories of mine have been deliberately personal. I wanted to portray an honest glimpse into what one American experienced in his travels back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean six times in one year as a soldier in the Iraq war, gracefully lifting from these high Utah deserts, and then flying in low and fast across Ramadi in a blacked out attack helicopter. But these stories hardly illuminate the complexity my life has yielded. They are personal, yes, but only in the way a Polaroid picture of my family at a park one particular afternoon — when the last of the light broke through the trees in shafts, creating dusty colliding ecosystems with the pollen in the air — conveys a moment in time, a wonderful unmatchable moment.

I’d like to personally thank you all for reading, and for the supportive comments. I’d also like to thank my fellow Home Fires bloggers for their service, their sacrifices, and their insights. And finally I want to extend my sincere thanks to all the military families who are dealing with deployments, making huge personal sacrifices, and trying to keep it all together. You are a special breed and you must know it. Please continue to check my blog for information on upcoming projects, to include but not limited to, a non-fiction book about my experiences in Iraq, the authorized biography of Brigadier General Richard Fisher, and a novel.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

HOME FIRES: Five Iraq War Veterans on Their Return to American Life

It’s been over three weeks since my last haircut, and the urge to get it cut again is killing me. I’m accustomed to having longer hair now; that’s not the issue. The problem is that weekly haircuts keep the ends of your hair neatly trimmed to the same length, and the shaggy look of uneven ends bothers me. Everyone else seems to suffer from the same phenomenon of uneven hair, but it’s still a little disconcerting.

Less frequent haircuts have been just one small part of my adjustment to the civilian workforce. Changing my vocabulary has definitely been the largest adjustment. I was reading a tape measure at work a couple weeks ago and accidentally rattled off an incorrect number to my co-worker who was compiling the data into a table with a pencil. Needing to correct the error I quickly said, “As you were,” which in the Marine Corps means, “Ignore what I just said; here comes a correction.” Quickly realizing that phrase was only slightly clearer than speaking Arabic I backtracked again and said “neg….” I got the first syllable of “negative” out of my mouth before I thought to myself, “What is wrong with you? First, you’ve never been taught to use the word ‘negative.’ Second, is it possible for you to speak like a normal human being for just a moment, or are you incapable of that?”

Responding to my own criticism my next verbal utterance was ‘Damn it!”

Now I was swearing, which I know isn’t as acceptable at work as it was in the Marine Corps, so I was digging further yet into this self-induced black hole of vernacular. I said to myself “O.K. Just stop, take a breath, and recock … damn it! I did it again (recock).” At this point you’re probably thinking, “He must have been lying in his previous blogs, because he’s obviously got a lot of war-related mental issues.” All of the above transpired within a couple seconds after which my co-worker asked, “What does that mean … what you just said?”

In an interesting turn of events it seems my Marine Corps vocabulary is a curiosity to others as well as a personal cross to bear. Nobody seems to be bothered by my use of “check,” “roger,” or “out,” although if I ever strung them together into “Check Roger out!” I would definitely get some strange looks. I have settled into keeping obvious and familiar words as part of my vocabulary, at least for the short-term. Some of them are more descriptive, and in my opinion, better. Take “roger” for instance. If I reply “O.K.” to a question or statement, that could mean anything. If I reply, “roger” that means I understood what was said and what tasks it implies for me. Perhaps one day my neurons will link that thought to the phrase “O.K.” — but probably not anytime soon.

Another area where I have problems is using first names for everyone in the workplace. Now, I’m not a social idiot. I can deal with calling my supervisor and even his supervisor by first names. They’re both only a few years older than me, and I view all of us as the equivalent of company grade officers, who are often on a first-name basis. However, I know the boss three bosses above me is not in my peer group, but everyone still refers to him by his first name. I feel awkward when I call him Mr.So-and-so because I feel like I look too rigid, but using his first name feels equally awkward. Furthermore, everyone also refers to Mr. So-and-so’s boss, a vice president, by his first name. I’ve haven’t met him since my interview, but I already know that when I do, I’ll be calling him “Doctor.” Until I get some graduate degrees under my belt I’ll continue to refer to those with Ph.D.s as “Doctor.”

As you might have discerned from my company grade officer analogy in the preceding paragraph, I also continually try to understand organizational structures and leadership positions in terms of what it would mean in the Marine Corps. Working for a defense contractor on a military base makes it a little more applicable. I think I use the analogy to determine the seniority of the person in question, and therefore how familiar I can act towards them.

One area where I think I have a distinct advantage over my civilian peers is tracking a task to completion. I’ve noticed that civilians seem much more apt to just “let it ride.” They talk about things in esoteric terms and often don’t get into the details, or are content to let the details work themselves out later, which requires more time and effort than truly necessary. The proverbial “they” is also a constant presence. I’m starting to figure out that if someone doesn’t know who “they” are then “they” may really be “we.” Similarly, “we” often means “you,” so applying the transitive property we get the equation: “They = = You.” I’m still working on the formal proof.

On a positive note, I absolutely love being a civilian again. Specifically, I enjoy not being a supervisor. I hope that changes in the future, but for right now it’s glorious to just be a trigger-puller (a basic rifleman — the most junior marine, who isn’t in charge of anyone). When I leave work in the afternoon I don’t have to think about it again until morning. When I leave on Friday I’m resting easy until Monday morning. Everybody in my workplace could get a D.U.I., a divorce, a speeding ticket, bounce checks, ignore their creditors, and gamble away their savings in Tunica, Miss., and for once I would never know about it. That, my friends, is my favorite employee benefit, and they don’t even advertise it on the company Web site.

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An Easy Target, but Does That Mean Hatred?

Published: June 26, 2007

Hate-crime laws have long had their skeptics, and the one enacted by New York State in 2000 is no exception.

The law increases the penalties for wrongdoing committed out of hatred of the victim because of factors like race, religion, age, sexual orientation or disability. Beat up someone for being, say, Jewish or black or gay, and you will do extra prison time if convicted. The theory is that a crime motivated by hatred can affect an entire community, not just the victim.

But as critics see it, the law punishes thought. The actions themselves — assault, for example, not to mention murder — are already serious crimes. Adding years to a mugger’s sentence because he dislikes Jews or blacks or gays amounts to a penalty for holding beliefs that society considers unacceptable. So the critics would say.

And there lies an Orwellian slippery slope, they say. What other thoughts might one day be deemed impure? Some object to the creation of different classes of victims; they say it undermines the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws.”

Now a case in Brooklyn adds a new twist, in the form of a question that goes to the heart of the law:

Can you have a hate crime without hate?

Yes, the Brooklyn district attorney says. But to a lawyer for three men charged with murder, that is “absurd.” It is up to a state judge in Brooklyn to decide who is right.

The case is rooted in the death of Michael J. Sandy, 29, last October. According to the charges, the three men used an Internet chat room to lure Mr. Sandy to a secluded area in Sheepshead Bay known as a gay trysting spot. They were in search of money and drugs, it is charged, and thought that a gay man would be an easy target, unlikely to put up much resistance or to report the crime.

The charges say that they beat Mr. Sandy, but that he broke free and ran onto the nearby Belt Parkway, where he was hit by a car. Five days later, he died.

The defendants are accused not only of murder but also of murder as a hate crime. It is the hate-crime charge that their lawyer, Gerald J. Di Chiara, wants tossed out. They bore no ill will against gays, Mr. Di Chiara says. “The crimes alleged are not crimes of hate but rather crimes of opportunity,” he wrote the judge, Justice Jill Konviser-Levine of State Supreme Court.

The distinction that Mr. Di Chiara makes is significant, some would say. Not Brooklyn prosecutors, however. They acknowledge that there is no evidence of “an animus toward gay men” by the defendants. But blatant hatred is not required under the 2000 law, they say. If it were, the law would have explicitly said so.

What it says instead is that a person commits a hate crime when he makes someone a target “in whole or in substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation of a person.” The prosecutors say that the three men picked on Mr. Sandy precisely “because of a belief or perception” about him — namely that a gay man would make a soft target.

The statute’s language, they told the judge, is “unambiguous.”

WOULD that life were so simple.

The law also says that “proof of race, color, national origin” and all the rest “does not, by itself, constitute legally sufficient evidence” to substantiate a hate crime charge. More is presumably needed. Like what? Mr. Di Chiara cited a State Senate memorandum from 2000 that spoke of limiting prosecutions to “only those who are truly motivated by invidious hatred.”

Invidious hatred? Not on the part of his clients, the lawyer said. They were just looking for easy pickings.

Under the prosecution’s interpretation, he said, hate crime charges could be brought against a mugger who attacks an old woman in the belief that she will offer little resistance. Or against a burglar who goes after an illegal immigrant figuring that the victim won’t go to the police.

One might also conclude, Mr. Di Chiara said, that “all sex crimes are hate crimes because the victims were chosen ‘because of’ their sex.” Yet you do not see rapists routinely prosecuted as hate criminals.

Slippery slopes. They are what happens, some say, when the law does not let actions speak for themselves, and climbs into people’s heads in often fruitless attempts to figure out what is rattling there.


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Monday, June 25, 2007

Of Sarajevo and Baghdad

Published: June 24, 2007


On a visit to Serb-encircled Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, I drove the treacherous Igman road with Samantha Power, then a twenty-something rookie reporter and now a Harvard professor and a Pulitzer prize-winning author. Her book, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," has become a reference.

Moving at high speed on a twisting dirt track exposed to Serbian fire, I lost control. We veered toward a vertical drop that would kill three American diplomats later that year. She looked at me; I looked at her. Such moments, survived, create a bond.

So it has been hard seeing Power agonize, as I think the whole Bosnia generation has agonized, and come down, like David Rieff and Edward Vulliamy and other eloquent voices of Balkan interventionism, against the Iraq invasion.

Power concluded in early 2003 that intervening would "make the world a much more dangerous place" even if it might make Iraq "a more humane place." The former, for her, outweighed the latter.

Iraq did not grow more humane, not yet anyway. The world is still dangerous, possibly more so. When I spoke to Power the other day, she said something sad but probably true:

"Humanitarian intervention - the nonconsensual use of force - is dead. It had a very short life - September 1995 to the summer of 2003 - and it's been killed for the next decade. America is the only power than can do it and, after Iraq, we would just be recruiting fodder for this apocalyptic nihilism."

Put U.S. soldiers in Darfur, in other words, and you create a target for the global jihadists.

An Iraq invasion turned ex-post-facto into a humanitarian intervention does not sit well with human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantànamo. The Bush Administration's hubris has vitiated America's moral clout.

Still, what a difference a dozen years make. Power waited, as I did, for American force, deployed too late but deployed nonetheless, to end to the mass murder of Muslims in Bosnia by a repressive Serbian regime

It was American power again, used in Kosovo without the backing of a United Nations resolution, that brought to justice the regime's loathsome dictator, Slobodan Milosevic.

But, of course, compared to Saddam Hussein, Milosevic was a plaything. And there's the rub.

Have we liberal interventionists of the Balkans, members of the rapidly emptying school of "liberal hawks," been too quick to abandon our principles out of fear of alignment with the neo-cons?

Or perhaps, more inexcusably, have we fallen short merely because of a failure of the imagination, an inability to conceive of and work for a better Middle East, as if Arabs and freedom were somehow incompatible?

I think so. Paul Berman, a political historian, has a useful phrase to characterize American Middle East policy over the six decades before the Iraq invasion: the pursuit of "malign stability."

This approach, involving acquiescence to dictatorships in the name of stable repression and a stable oil supply, found its vilest expression in U.S. support of Saddam through his 1980s war with Iran (about 1 million dead) and the Kurdish genocide of 1988.

Backing turned to indifference when, in 1991, Saddam slaughtered Iraqi Shiites and Kurds whom the United States had encouraged to rise up. As malignity goes, that takes some beating.

The price of "stability" safeguarded by cynicism is worth recalling at a time when the Middle East's name is instability. Whatever else the bungled Iraq operation has been, it marked the end of American buttressing of a poisonous Middle Eastern stasis and a murderous Stalinist regime.

It is also worth recalling that it was in the time of quiet malevolence, back in 1998, that Osama bin Laden declared: "To kill Americans and their allies - civilians and military - is an individual duty for every Muslim."

Malign stability did not work, not in Iraq or Saudi Arabia. It produced a backlash that ended America's self-image as sanctuary protected by two wide oceans.

The global jihadists were not created by the Iraq invasion. They were thriving on American policy prior to it.

The manifold blunders of America in Iraq have made it unfashionable to recall such truths.

Fashion is a poor compass. The next time a car bomb goes off, remember Saddon al-Saiedi, a 36-year-old Shiite army colonel, father of two, abducted by Saddam's goons on May 2, 1993, and never seen again.

As he went, so went numberless others, without a bang. Totalitarian hell - malign stability - holds no hope. Violent instability is unacceptable but not hopeless. Baghdad is closer to Sarajevo than we have allowed.


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A ‘Painful Way to Die’

Published: June 25, 2007

JOMBA, Congo

If you think you face tough choices, imagine you were living here in eastern Congo.

“If women go to the fields, they’re raped,” said Shabain Katuija, a local man. “If they don’t go to the fields, they starve.”

So why don’t men go to the fields instead? Olivier Sbasoro, a villager here, explained: “They rape the women, but it’s worse for the men, because they kill them or kidnap them to make them slaves.”

On this “win a trip” journey through central Africa with a teacher and a student, we’re visiting the forgotten war inside Congo. The death toll has already reached four million, making this the most lethal conflict since World War II.

The warfare has also caused a vast and potentially rich land to sink into hunger and poverty. Roads have returned to jungle, so as the rest of the world has gotten smaller, Congo has become bigger. When foreigners drove into a village that had been cut off by the insecurity, the local people hadn’t seen a vehicle for decades — and marveled at what they called the “walking house.”

After 10 years of warfare in Congo, much of the country is finally enjoying real progress, especially since U.N.-sponsored elections last year. But here in eastern Congo, war is ratcheting up again.

Grim shantytowns have been set up for some of the 150,000 people who have been driven from their homes by fighting since January. At one of these camps, I asked a chief if I could talk to a woman who had been raped recently. He introduced me to Angella Mapendo, whose husband had been killed and who was pregnant as a result of rape by soldiers.

When I had finished hearing Angella’s story, I looked up — and there was a growing line of other women who had been raped, all waiting to tell me their stories.

The tension is thick around Jomba, where a priest was executed recently for showing compassion and leadership. When we drove into Jomba, local people crowded around us to describe kidnappings, rape and murder by soldiers of various loyalties.

Peasants in some villages are now sleeping out in the bush every night, for fear that soldiers will raid their houses. At a local elementary school, I asked the children in one class how many had lost their fathers. Too many hands went up for me to count.

(Many of the rapes and killings are by soldiers loyal to Laurent Nkunda. He’s the warlord whose mountain lair I wrote about a week ago.)

You can see videos of these sights, and read the terrific blogs of Leana Wen and Will Okun, the student and teacher accompanying me, at

The U.N. World Food Program and a tiny number of aid groups are struggling to keep people alive. The effort is led by groups of heroic Catholic nuns and priests, supported by the aid group Caritas.

This war staggers on in part because the suffering here hasn’t registered on the international conscience, and because it has been allowed to fester and continue. Barack Obama and Sam Brownback are among the few prominent American politicians who have focused on the war here.

There’s no simple solution to the conflict, but we can lean on Rwanda to stop supporting its proxy force in eastern Congo, and also to work harder to repatriate Hutus who have destabilized Congo since they fled here after the genocide in 1994. We can push a peace process. We can support the U.N. peacekeepers. We can help with the reform and training of Congo’s security forces. And a six-hour visit by Condi Rice would help put the crisis on the map.

Of the many people I’ve met here, one I can’t get out of my mind is Cecilie Nyirahabinana, a young woman with a shrinking family. A few years ago, fighting led to famine and her two oldest children died. Her youngest, Anita, was still a baby and survived on Cecilie’s breast milk.

Then a couple of months ago, soldiers shot her husband dead. Since then, Cecilie has had nothing to feed Anita but green leaves.

So Anita is now skeletal and barely able to move, having slowly starved for months. Aya Schneerson, who runs the World Food Program office in the area, explained what Anita is going through: “These kids are in constant pain,” she said. “It’s a very painful way to die.”

And the way things are going, hundreds of thousands more will die that way.

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

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Doubting the Police

Published: June 26, 2007

The woman was reluctant to let her name be used. She said she had a teenage son and was afraid that he might be harassed by the police. But her desire to have the truth come out overcame her fears.

“You can use my name,” she told me, “because I did not like what the police did to those kids. My name is Greer Martin.”

Ms. Martin was standing outside her home on a quiet, tree-lined block of Putnam Avenue in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. This was the block on which, a few weeks ago, the police closed in on a large group of young men, women and children who were walking toward a subway station, on their way to a wake for a friend who had been murdered.

Thirty-two of the young people, including a 13-year-old, were arrested. Most were charged with unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct. Commissioner Ray Kelly and others in the Police Department have been spreading the word that these youngsters had been out of control, walking on top of cars and illegally blocking traffic in the street and on the sidewalk.

It does not appear that any of that was true.

The arrests occurred right outside Ms. Martin’s first-floor windows. “I was shocked beyond shock,” she said. “My windows were open, and it didn’t look like the kids had done anything wrong. The police handcuffed them and lined them up right there, at the beginning of my fence. One young lady was crying, but they didn’t resist in any way.”

She said she asked a detective why the young people were being arrested. “He told me they were trying to defuse a situation,” she said. “He said they were going to take the kids in and have a talk with them.”

A man named Conroy, who asked that his last name not be used, said he witnessed the entire incident. He lives across the street from Ms. Martin, and his 2007 Chevrolet Suburban was parked on the same side of the street that the kids were walking along when they were arrested.

He also said he was shocked by the police action. “The kids weren’t doing anything wrong,” he said.

I asked if anyone had been walking on top of cars. Conroy laughed and gestured toward his gleaming black vehicle. “Don’t you think if they had been climbing on top of cars, I would have noticed?”

He pulled out his cellphone to show me photos of some of the youngsters handcuffed and in police custody. I asked if the youngsters had blocked traffic. Conroy said, “No, not at all. There wasn’t any traffic out here until the police cars swooped in.”

I have interviewed many civilians about this case, and none have supported the police version of events. This is not a small matter. It’s a terrible thing if the police have been lying about their reasons for arresting these youngsters.

The official charges make no mention of people climbing on top of cars. It took a while for that tale to develop. The first time I heard it was in an interview I did with Capt. Scott Henderson of the 83rd Precinct a few days after the arrests. He said he had seen people walking on top of cars and that several of the youngsters had red bandanas.

The bandanas would have signaled that the youngsters were affiliated with the Bloods, the violent and notorious street gang. I asked what had happened to the bandanas. Captain Henderson said he didn’t know.

I e-mailed a list of questions to Commissioner Kelly’s office, trying to get whatever information might be available to corroborate Captain Henderson’s version of events. I asked if there were any other officers who saw anyone on top of cars. I was told that that information could not immediately be tracked down.

I asked if there were any civilian witnesses to such activity. I was referred to the office of the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles Hynes, which did not provide the identity of any witnesses.

I asked if the Police Department had the names of any youngsters who had climbed on top of a car. I was told no.

I believe that an outlandish miscarriage of justice has occurred here, that the youngsters arrested did nothing wrong and that the Police Department’s version of events is false. Commissioner Kelly could clear the matter up once and for all by mounting an honest investigation to determine what really happened.

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Floyd Norris: Notions on High & Low Finance

The number of companies affected by naked short selling keeps growing — at least in the minds of some.

Richard Altomare, who continued to serve as the chief executive and only director of Universal Express for months after a federal judge barred him from serving as an officer or director of a public company, has the latest number.

Last week, Universal’s general counsel, Chris Gunderson, told me 3,000 companies had been destroyed by naked short-selling, a number he raised to 4,000 after I asked for a list. Now Mr. Altomare says “6,000 companies were damaged or failed due to the trading problems caused by naked short selling.”

There are about 9,500 companies that file financial statements with the S.E.C., so that is roughly 60 percent of the total.

Mr. Altomare wants people to believe that the S.E.C. is out to get him because he complained about naked shorting, the practice of selling shares without borrowing them. It would rather not address the finding of a judge that the company finances itself by illegally selling shares while it pumps up its stock price with false and misleading news releases, but Mr. Altomere is outraged that the S.E.C. wants to appoint a receiver to replace him.

The company treated the judge’s original order as something to be ignored, neither mentioning it to shareholders nor bothering to ask that it be stayed until last week, months after it was issued but just days after I began asking questions for my column that ran Friday.)

Mr. Altomare’s latest statement compares himself to Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony, as well as offering the 9,000 number.

In his ruling in February, Federal District Court Judge Gerard E. Lynch said Mr. Altomare had “chutzpah.” The latest statement from Mr. Altomare does not contradict that opinion.

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Floyd Norris: Notions on High & Low Finance

An obscure government study of audit quality — in audits that are not regulated by much of anybody — has found that most audits conducted in 2002-’03 were not of sufficient quality to be relied upon.

The report was released last week with little fanfare. It concerns a requirement that recipients of federal grants and contracts provide the government with a “single audit” covering their financial statements and their use of the federal funds.

Based on analyses of 208 such audits, the study concluded that 21 percent of the audits were done correctly, and that another 28 percent were acceptable even though there were deficiencies. That adds up to less than half.

Of the others, it estimated that 16 percent were of limited reliability and 35 percent were completely unacceptable.

The study, conducted by the wonderfully named President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency, did conclude that problems were less likely among big contractors, but such large firms were also where it found the most material reporting errors — where it appeared the auditors got numbers significantly wrong — as opposed to cases where the audit papers showed inadequate work.

Operations that received contracts from the Department of Education tended to have good audits, but those with contracts from the Department of Housing did not, partially because of problems at public housing agencies.
Two contracts were reviewed from Indian Tribal government entities, and both were unacceptable. Of nonprofit agencies, 26 of 76 had unacceptable audits. That compared to 5 of 30 colleges and universities — and 6 of 10 public housing agencies.

The auditing profession historically is among the least regulated on a national basis. State boards are primarily responsible, and have never done much to discipline inadequate work. The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, established in 2002, only covers auditors of public companies.

The report recommends required education for such auditors, and it recommends some type of discipline, perhaps including fines for bad auditing. Now, there are penalties — rarely invoked — for the audited entities that submit bad audits, but none for the auditors themselves.

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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

The Supreme Court dealt a huge blow to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act today, loosening “the restrictions on what companies and unions can spend on television advertisements just before elections.” The Republican co-sponsor of the act, John McCain, wasn’t pleased, saying, “It is regrettable that a split Supreme Court has carved out a narrow exception by which some corporate and labor expenditures can be used to target a federal candidate in the days and weeks before an election.”

Others on the right, unsurprisingly, are more upbeat. John Tabin at The American Spectator feels the ruling is a microcosm of McCain’s difficulties: “The Court’s shift to the right sometimes seems like the only thing in the Bush era that conservatives are actually happy about. Discontent with that rightward shift is a losing position in a Republican primary.”

“This is a victory for free speech, but the court didn’t go far enough in my opinion,” insists Macranger at the conservative blog Macsmind “The entire act should be repealed as it is an afront to the First Amendment — thus unconstitutional. Still, this is a small victory for sure.”

Who’s the big winner? NBC’s Mark Murray feels it’s Mitt Romney, whose first comment was “Score one for free speech.”

Murray notes that “this isn’t the first time — and it won’t be the last — Romney has tried to whack G.O.P. rival McCain over his authorship of McCain-Feingold. ‘My fear is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that’s bad,’ Romney said at the second G.O.P. debate.”

James Joyner at Outside the Beltway seems to have a tad of sympathy for the Arizona senator:

McCain has long been distrusted by the base but he at least had the support of independents, who thought of him as a “maverick” and a “straight talker.” Unfortunately for him, he is bucking the tide by backing the president on the two least popular issues, the war and illegal immigration. I just don’t see how he turns around the numbers given that. The irony is that many of the people who hate McCain because he’s “not conservative enough” and who are angry at him for McCain-Feingold are enthusiastically rallying behind Fred Thompson, who voted for that bill and is less conservative than McCain on most key issues.

Then again, if Thompson really wants to be president, he’s going to have to, you know, enter the race at some point. Does it seem likely his voting record might come under a bit more scrutiny then?

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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

  • The coastal elites may all be talking about Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” but what do average folks think of America’s health care system? Joseph Paduda at Managed Care Matters has the scoop on the latest Kaiser Family Foundation poll, where health care is the top domestic concern, but ranks a distant second to the war on Iraq. “Among health care ’sub-topics,’ ” Paduda notes, “voters most wanted to hear candidates talk about covering the uninsured (36 percent) followed by health care costs (21 percent). Alas, quality barely registered, with only 2 percent of respondents naming quality as one of their top two interests.”

    And according to the poll, there doesn’t appear to be a health care savior among the 2008 presidential crowd. “The poll also asked respondents which candidate’s views on health care best reflected their’s; 59 percent of respondents could not name one,” Paduda writes. “Democrats preferred Clinton while Republicans liked Giuliani — BUT no candidate from either party has much traction, and the Mayor led with a mere 9 percent.”

  • For his part, Barack Obama seems to be seeking healing of a spiritual kind, telling an audience that faith got “hijacked” by the religious right. But Ann Althouse isn’t buying it:

    It’s entirely distracting to use the word ‘hijack,’ especially if the problem you’re talking about has nothing to do with what we saw on September 11th but is simply the way some Christians take the conservative side on various issues and, failing to content themselves with mere belief, participate in politics. According to Obama, Christianity should move a person to political action — Obama himself was speaking to a church congregation — but only on the progressive side. Yet he said that in traveling around the country he had sensed an “awakening” of an interfaith movement of “progressives.” … Obama’s famous rhetoric looks entirely self-contradictory. If he’s trying to stimulate liberal Christians to political action, he too is using faith to “drive us apart.”

  • It may not have any cute kitties or dancing dorks, but a video recently posted on YouTube is creating quite a fuss in the blogosphere. According to Walter Olson at Overlawyered, the clip shows “attorneys for Cohen & Grigsby, one of the largest law firms in Pittsburgh, explaining at a conference on immigration how to obey laws that require Americans be given top priority for jobs while still ensuring foreigners are hired.”

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THINK AGAIN: A blog at the NY Times by Stanley Fish

Sure it is. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens think that this fact about religion is enough to invalidate its claims.

“[R]eligion and the churches,” declares Hitchens “are manufactured, and this salient fact is too obvious to ignore.” True to his faith, Dawkins finds that the manufacturing and growth of religion is best described in evolutionary terms: “[R]eligions, like languages, evolve with sufficient randomness, from beginnings that are sufficiently arbitrary, to generate the bewildering – and sometimes dangerous – richness of diversity.” Harris finds a historical origin for religion and religious traditions, and it is not flattering: “The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology.”

And, they continue, it wasn’t even the work of sand-strewn men who labored in the same place at the same time. Rather, it was pieced together from fragments and contradictory sources and then had claimed for it a spurious unity: “Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world” (Dawkins).

Hitchens adds that “the sciences of textual criticism, archaeology, physics, and molecular biology have shown religious myths to be false and man-made.” And yet, wonders Harris, “nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity.”

So there’s the triple-pronged case. Religions are humanly constructed traditions and at their center are corrupted texts that were cobbled together by provincial, ignorant men who knew less about the world than any high-school teenager alive today. Sounds devastating, but when you get right down to it, all it amounts to is the assertion that God didn’t write the books or establish the terms of worship, men did, and that the results are (to put it charitably) less than perfect.

But that is exactly what you would expect. It is God (if there is one) who is perfect and infinite; men are finite and confined within historical perspectives. And any effort to apprehend him – including the efforts of the compilers of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran – will necessarily fall short of a transparency that will be achieved (if it is achieved) only at a future moment of beatific vision. Now – any now, whether it be 2007 or 6,000 years ago – we see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians, 13:12); one day, it is hoped, we shall see face to face.

In short, it is the unfathomable and unbridgeable distance between deity and creature that assures the failure of the latter to comprehend or prove (in the sense of validating) the former.

O.L. (in a comment on June 11), identifies the “religion is man-made claim” as the “strongest foundation of atheism” because “it undermines the divinity of god.” No, it undermines the divinity of man, which is, after all, the entire point of religion: man is not divine, but mortal (capable of death), and he is dependent upon a creator who by definition cannot be contained within human categories of perception and description. “How unsearchable are his Judgments and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor” (Romans, 11:33-34). It is no wonder, then, that the attempts to contain him – in scriptures, in ceremonies, in prayer – are flawed, incomplete and forever inadequate. Rather than telling against divinity, the radical imperfection, even corruption, of religious texts and traditions can be read as a proof of divinity, or at least of the extent to which divinity exceeds human measure.

If divinity, by definition, exceeds human measure, the demand that the existence of God be proven makes no sense because the machinery of proof, whatever it was, could not extend itself far enough to apprehend him.

Proving the existence of God would be possible only if God were an item in his own field; that is, if he were the kind of object that could be brought into view by a very large telescope or an incredibly powerful microscope. God, however – again if there is a God – is not in the world; the world is in him; and therefore there is no perspective, however technologically sophisticated, from which he could be spied. As that which encompasses everything, he cannot be discerned by anything or anyone because there is no possibility of achieving the requisite distance from his presence that discerning him would require.

The criticism made by atheists that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated is no criticism at all; for a God whose existence could be demonstrated wouldn’t be a God; he would just be another object in the field of human vision.

This does not mean that my arguments constitute a proof of the truth of religion; for if I were to claim that I would be making the atheists’ mistake from the other direction. Nor are they arguments in which I have a personal investment. Their purpose and function is simply to show how the atheists’ arguments miss their mark and, indeed, could not possibly hit it.

At various points Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens all testify to their admiration for Shakespeare, who, they seem to think, is more godly than God. They would do well to remember one of the bard’s most famous lines, uttered by Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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