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Friday, July 12, 2002

 
ITEM: White House blames Clinton’s “Moral Climate” for Enron, WorldCom

A mansion in the Homeland. Near midnight.

The CEO was excited about the “new era of responsibility.”

The total lack of meaningful oversight ushered in by President Bush provided an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate his virtue. The CEO was glad for the chance to regulate himself without interference from government. He was proud to show the world that even with a toothless SEC -- even with a financially beholden auditing firm and lax, almost non-existent enforcement of the few remaining rules -- he would remain righteous and show the world that he shared the President’s core moral values.

Good people with good hearts didn’t need rules to be good, President Bush had said, and the CEO was proud to prove the President right.

Maybe too proud. Maybe it was pride that gave the devil an opening, for in a sulfurous flash he was there, standing before the CEO, his white hair nearly hiding the telltale horns.

“Awww, go ahead,” said the draftdodgingpotsmokingwomanizing Prince of Darkness. “Nobody’s lookin’.”

“But, but I mustn’t break the rules,” the CEO said.

“Rules, schmules,” said Clinton … I mean Satan. “Cook the books. Rip off your stockholders, your employees, the pensioners. Screw the working man.”

“No, I couldn’t … President Bush would never screw the working man!" the CEO cried. "I have to be above reproach, like the leaders of Harken and Halliburton. And ... and President Bush said that even if there’s no regulation, God still sees my heart.”

“God? God?!?” the devil said, his face briefly twisting into a mask of pure hatred as it did whenever he heard that word uttered in the Pledge of Allegiance or that Lee Greenwood song.

But just as suddenly the look passed and the devil was again smiling his charming smile, Slick Willie the Angel of Light. “But don’t you see," the evil one said. "Don’t you see there is no God? And without God, everything is permissible.”

“No God?” The CEO looked frightened, confused.

“Look,” the devil said. “What’s the worst possible evil you can imagine? The abomination that causes desolation – an act so utterly blasphemous that it’s very existence disproves the fantasy of a moral universe ruled over by a benevolent deity? A deed that proves the meaninglessness of our amoral, random, bestial lives?”

“I guess if … if ... if a president were to receive fellatio in the White House. I can imagine no evil worse than a president receiving fellatio in the White House. A president receiving fellatio in the White House would prove that God is a fairytale and morality a myth in this cruel, nihilistic universe. If such an unspeakably evil act could occur, then I would be a fool to believe in God or goodness or in standard accounting principles like the distinction between capital expenses and operating expenses.”

"Well," the Dark Lord said, lighting up a cigar, "I hate to tell you this, but ..."


posted by Fred Clark 10:49 AM


Thursday, July 11, 2002

 
THE BIRDS AND THE BEANS.

(This is an old "Shop & Save" column from a 1997 issue of PRISM magazine.)


It’s a question even the best parents dread but can’t avoid. Sooner or later, it’s time for … The Talk.

“Daddy,” the child says expectantly, “where does coffee come from?”

“Uh, coffee?” says the nervous father, “Coffee comes from the grocery store.”

“But how does it get to the grocery store?”

“Well, the, uh, the stork brings it.”

“The stork?”

“Look son, why don’t you ask your mother?”

For millions of coffee drinkers, it might as well be the stork. Coffee is grown thousands of miles away and who grows it or how it got to us isn’t something we’re supposed to think about. As the price of coffee climbs, consumers may grumble, but will continue to pay, unquestioningly. (This is, after all, coffee we’re talking about, not some optional luxury.)

Coffee is grown in tropical countries like Brazil, Colombia, Kenya and Indonesia. It is usually grown on plantations where workers often are not paid a living wage. To increase short-term productivity, coffee plantations have adopted unnatural models, growing row after row of coffee plants in the hot sun.

Coffee is naturally a shade crop. When grown in barren monocultures, like Iowa corn, it takes massive amounts of pesticides to keep coffee plants insect-free. Consumers of the final product are probably not in danger from these toxins, but they pose a serious threat to the health of plantation workers and local ecosystems. Natural, shade-grown coffee farms provide impor- tant habitats for migratory songbirds. One apparent reason for the decline of these songbirds in America is the proliferation of pesticide-soaked industrial coffee plantations.

Those coffee growers who want to do right by their workers and to care for their land face pressure from buyers to keep costs down. The large multinational buyers have nothing against workers per se, but like the consumers they supply, they just don’t think about it, worrying only about getting the lowest possible price. A coffee grower who does justice to his workers and his land may get priced out of the market.

Many of these buyers have proven irresponsible in other areas. One of the largest coffee buyers is Philip Morris, the tobacco giant behind brand names like Brim, General Foods, Gevalia, Maxim, Maxwell House and Sanka. Philip Morris is the target of a boycott sponsored by INFACT in protest of the company’s marketing of cigarettes to the poor in developing countries around the world. Another large coffee buyer is Nestle, which has for decades been the target of an international boycott due to its irresponsible marketing of infant formula in poor countries. Nestle produces Cain’s, Chase & Sanborn, Hills Bros., MJB, Nescafe and Sunrise coffees.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. At PRISM, we get our coffee from Equal Exchange, a fair trade company that deals directly with coffee growers. Equal Exchange buys delicious, organically grown coffee from cooperatives, providing a fair market for responsible, ethical growers. Because they deal directly with growers instead of commodities markets, Equal Exchange is able to offer a higher price to their suppliers and a competitive price to their customers.

The Thanksgiving Coffee Company is another conscientious provider of organic coffee. Their goal is to “support those growers who have applied...methods to improve the environmental and social con- ditions within the coffee growing regions in which they operate.”

--------------------------------------

Some more good links not in the original article:

Pura Vida takes the profits from it's fair trade coffee and reinvests them in programs to benefit the children in communities where the coffee is grown.

Cafe Campesino is another fine fair trader.

The folks at Sacred Grounds sell a fair trade blend to benefit the Sierra Club.

And check out Global Exchange, which is promoting a Fair Trade Coffee Campaign.



posted by Fred Clark 3:25 PM

 
ANDY SULLIVAN'S BUDWEISER COFFEE.

The increasingly shrill Andrew Sullivan seems to be learning of fair trade coffee for the first time today. It's hardly a new idea -- dating back at least to the time when Sullivan was an interesting commentator -- but since Equal Exchange doesn't have the same size ad budget as Procter & Gamble or Philip Morris, not everybody knows about the smaller traders who help, rather than exploit, coffee growers.

The idea as simple as "the worker is worth his keep" and "cut out the middle-men." Fair trade coffee let's American consumers purchase their java with fewer profit-sucking, flavor-removing intermediaries between their mugs and the actual farmers growing the actual beans on an actual farm. This helps both producers and consumers. Who -- besides those price-increasing, flavor-levelling middle-men -- does this hurt? Who could possibly object?

Well, apparently, Andrew Sullivan, who seems to imply that over-processed, corporate, industrial coffee tastes better than the fair trade real-deal. What's next? A column in which Andy worries that the "puritanical" Campaign for Real Ale is going to take away his Budweiser and Coors Lite?

Sullivan frets that the "puritanical left" is trying to "take away" his McCoffee, just like they have tried to take away his cigarettes, booze and porn. One pictures him, Charlton Heston-like, fending off his Puritan attackers: "You won't get my porn until you pry it from my hands ... from my cold, dead hands!"

That's not what fair trade is about. It's about creating alternatives. No one at Nestle or Philip Morris or P&G needs to lose sleep that Pura Vida is stealing all their business, or that the Nuclear-Free Zone of Berkeley, CA is considering making fair trade coffee a municipal mandate. So relax, Andy, your Folger's is safe.

posted by Fred Clark 2:16 PM


Wednesday, July 10, 2002

 
HALF-WAY.

We're here at the half-way mark in the week, and like the Mets at the half-way point in their season, I'm struggling, overpaid, underachieving, but hopeful that I can still be competitive.

-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-

MY SHARIA MORE.

Last month, Charles-Manson follower Leslie Van Houten was denied parole for the 13th time. Coverage of the parole board's decision uniformly referred to Manson's "cult" (see here, here and even here).

News media usually avoid the term "cult," due to its pejorative connotations. This perspective is neatly summed up by Anthony Campbell: "...One person's cult is another's religion; all religions begin life as cults. An alternative definition is that a cult is a religion which you happen to dislike."

I found that quote on this site, which shares the earnest-but-incoherent niceness of Baha'i, the I'd-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing-in-perfect-harmony ideal of unity-despite-contradiction. The site finds the term "cult" acceptable only for "destructive, doomsday religious groups whose members have been murdered or committed suicide" (a description that could easily include most of the world's major religions, as well as atheism and existentialism, but let it pass).

Manson's gang, with it's cocktail of wacky tenets, lethal violence and racism seems to make the term "cult" inescapable.

So what do we do with this story? Regional officials in Nigeria, claiming the authority of Sharia, or Islamic law, are seeking to kill Amina Lawal for giving birth outside of wedlock. Specifically, they want a bunch of men to throw rocks at her until she's as dead as Sharon Tate. That's a pathological misogyny that goes way beyond forcing your wife to wear a veil.

Ms. Lawal is appealing her death sentence with the help of international human rights groups. Her defense will be that "the fetus lay dormant in her womb since [her] divorce two years ago." This is, apparently, a legitimate defense argument under Nigeria's version of Sharia.

Is there any basis, any criteria, by which we can call the Manson family a cult, but not the Sharia regimes of Nigeria?

I am not criticizing Islam here. If my understanding of that tradition is correct, then Nigeria's anti-woman killers are no more legitimately Islamic than the Ku Klux Klan or "Christian Identity" is legitimately Christian.

-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-

REEFER MADNESS.

Britain's Home Secretary David Blunkett today announced a moderate moderation in Britain's drug laws.

The change does not "legalize" marijuana use, but it does reclassify use of cannabis as a lesser offense than the use of harder drugs like heroin. The move, and Blunkett's statements, seem eminently sensible:

"The message is clear - drugs are dangerous. We will educate, persuade and where necessary, direct young people away from their use.

"We will not legalise or decriminalise any drugs, nor do we envisage a time when this will be appropriate."

The Beeb also notes that, "Mr Blunkett placed heavy emphasis on the importance of drug treatment." All of this is rather bland, reasonable and prudent, and we should expect that Blunkett will therefore be pilloried as an extremist, decried as soft on drugs, and sniped at by talk radio and Fox News hosts as the moral equivalent of Genghis Khan.

And speaking of overblown right-wing hysteria ... Focus on the Family media mogul James Dobson is calling on his followers/listeners/donors/minions to withdraw their children from public schools.

"It's as though the dam has now broken and activists representing various causes, including homosexuality, are rushing through the breach in ways that are shocking," Dobson said, reiterating his deep-seated fear of homosexuals rushing through his breach. "The shocking thing is that this threat to kids is much, much broader than the homosexual movement. It doesn't stop there. It is aimed at the very core of the Judeo-Christian system of values."

This isn't the first time Dobson has called for Christians to remove their students from the worldly public school system, but this time he goes a step further in advocating retreat from the physical, secular world, calling on Christian teachers to stop teaching in public schools. "There is a problem here, and our children ... must take priority—even over our desire to stay and influence the schools."

So much for "You are the light of the world." So much for "You are the salt of the earth."

Contrast Dobson's outlook with this comment in the News Scotsman from Nick Tolson, who provides security advice for churches:

"Churches don’t want to lock up their doors all the time because drug users, criminals and other troubled people are precisely the kind of people churches exist to try and help.

"But churches are a target for opportunist thieves and they have to be aware of the temptations they might represent."

Churches should, in other words, be "wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves." They should be "in the world, but not of the world." That reminds me of what somebody said once, and it wasn't James Dobson.

-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-

From the "where are they now?" files.


posted by Fred Clark 2:21 PM


Tuesday, July 09, 2002

 
BLACK & WHITE.

President Bush, from yesterday's press conference, on accounting improprieties at Enron and WorldCom:

"I'll outline tough new laws and actions to punish abuses, restore investor confidence, and protect the pensions of American workers. We have a duty to every worker, shareholder, and investor in America to punish the guilty, to close loopholes, and protect employee pensions. And we will."

Pres. Bush, from the same conference, on accounting improprieties at Harken Energy:

"All I can tell you is, is that in the corporate world, sometimes things aren't exactly black and white when it comes to accounting procedures."

Arianna Huffington doesn't buy Bush's new "get-tough" approach to corporate crime:

"You can tell the president’s heart isn't really in his new tough rhetoric. Take his recent call on corporate executives not to 'fudge the numbers.' Given the daily revelations of corporate criminality and its devastating impact -- on jobs, savings, and faith in our economy -- admonishing crooked CEOs not to 'fudge the numbers' is like suggesting that suicide bombers not 'spoil the day' of their intended victims."

(Arianna gets extra credit for citing Orwell's "Politics and the English Language.")

Joe Conason, kicking off a new blog (or 'bjournal) at Salon, isn't buying Bush's story either:

"As we all know by now, Bush's corporate maneuvering has been 'fully vetted.' He expanded that line of defense when he claimed that the SEC examined all the aspects of his conduct at Harken 'in a very thorough way.' Exactly how thorough we may never know, since he declined to answer whether he would allow the SEC to release the entire file of its investigation into his controversial Harken trades. 'This is old politics,' he replied, complaining that the issue comes up every time he runs for office.

"It keeps coming up, of course, because his story is so implausible."

These folks have engineered a campaign (or at least a Web site) in support of Sen. Sarbanes accounting reform bill.

The Center for Public Integrity makes available some of the original SEC documents, outlining in black and white the accounting procedures at Harken Energy that the agency viewed as questionable.

Pres. George H.W. Bush's SEC eventually ended it's investigation of George W. Bush inconclusively and without pressing charges, the agency also insisted this: "must in no way be construed as indicating that [Mr. Bush] has been exonerated." Suppose, however, that no "wrongdoing" occurred at Harken. Suppose that Bush's $850,000 windfall from the sale of his stock just before the stock lost most of its value was just a matter of dumb luck and coincidence. Suppose Mr. Bush is telling the truth about all of this. What does that say about his leadership skills?

Reporter: "Mr. President, it appears you're corrupt and breaking the law."

President: "No, I'm just incompetent, incurious and unaware of what's going on when I'm supposed to be in charge."

Didn't we go through all this with Iran-Contra?


-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-

AND SPEAKING OF BLACK & WHITE ...

Also from yesterday's press conference:

Q: Mr. President. The NAACP is meeting this week in Houston, as you probably know. And there's been some criticism that you've not attended their convention since the 2000 campaign. How would you respond to that, and respond generally to suggestions from some critics that your civil rights record in the administration is not a stellar one?

THE PRESIDENT: Let's see. There I was, sitting around the leader with -- the table with foreign leaders, looking at Colin Powell and Condi Rice.

Yep. He said that. "Some of my best appointments are black."

-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-

SHADES OF GRAY.

"A judge may have to decide what happens to black twins born to a white couple after an apparent blunder at an IVF clinic," the BBC reports. Wasn't this the plot of Diff'rent Strokes?

I'm still trying to wrap my brain around how reaction to the story would be different if the parents were black and the twins were white (which was almost, but not quite, the plot of Puddinhead Wilson). I'm guessing some groups will protest if the parents decide to raise the twins, some groups will protest if they decide to place the twins for adoption, some will protest regardless, and others are already bidding on the movie rights.

-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-

Don't miss this: Davezilla presents the "Bible in Five Words" which shows an unlikely combination of credible slang and knowledge of the minor prophets.

-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-

And read this if you're okay with the idea of never eating chicken nuggets again.


posted by Fred Clark 1:22 PM

 
ALL-STAR GAME

It's an open secret among baseball fans that the game itself is never as much fun or as interesting as arguing about who should be on the team. The All-Star game has become too much of a spectacle -- it should be a spectacle, of course, but not in the same way that Superbowl halftimes and Academy Awards musical numbers are spectacles. (Bud Selig probably likes the Superbowl halftime show.)

Scott Rolen of the Phillies (at least until the trade deadline in 22 days) will be starting at third for the National League. I was reminded of Scottie reading this Pioneer Press tribute to Ted Williams. Rolen isn't anywhere in the class of Teddy Bleeping Ballgame, he's barely having an All-Star season, but the old-school young star could probably relate to Williams' relationship with his ballclub and hometown fans, especially since he's perfected Williams' literal interpretation of the term "home-run." Here's how John Updike described it in "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu":

"Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases hurriedly at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs -- hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of."

posted by Fred Clark 11:55 AM


Monday, July 08, 2002

 
STRANGER THAN FICTION.

Poor Tom Tomorrow. In a cartoon that's maybe a bit too pointed to be really funny, he tried to satirize the tendency of some conservatives to criticize as "un-American" anyone who is not in lock-step agreement with their point of view.

Conservatives responded that Tom Tomorrow was using a broad brush to caricature their views unfairly.

In a series of well-reasoned, accurate and nuanced essays, noted right-of-center thinkers argued vigorously for an inclusive vision of patriotism that allows for dissent and a "free market" of ideas.

Citing Lincoln's Second Inaugural, MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rudy Giuliani, they presented an inspiring vision of an America in which ideas and ideals are freely discussed so that, together, as an inclusive community, e pluribus unum, we can work together to make our country the best it can be, a shining city on a hill, a beacon of freedom for the tired masses of the world, yearning to breathe free, etc.

Oops. Daydreaming again. That's what would have happened if the GOP were really, as John McCain said, "... the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests. ... the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones.”

Instead, conservatives have blasted Tom Tomorrow's cartoon as un-American, challenging his patriotism. Their claim, in essence, is that his portrayal of their position was not enough of a manichean cartoon nightmare. As long as Ann Coulter et al are in business, parody will always come up short of the reality.

The world in general is more hostile to parody. What satirist would have dared invent this scenario, told by Johnell Bryant of the Department of Agriculture, which, Charles Peters rightly says, sounds like an in-poor-taste Saturday Night Live skit:

"It seems that Mohammed Atta, the conspiracy ringleader, applied to her for a $650,000 loan to buy a twin-engine crop duster. He also tried to buy an aerial photograph of Washington that hung on her wall, after asking her to point out where the Pentagon and the White House were.

"When Bryant told him he could not have the loan, Atta, writes Tina Kelley of The New York Times, 'became agitated ... and asked her what was to prevent him from slitting her throat and stealing money from the safe behind the desk in her Florida office.'

"When she replied that there was no money in the safe and that she was trained in martial arts, Atta displayed his flexibility.

"He asked how he could get such training and said that al Qaeda could use someone with her qualifications, telling her about Osama bin Laden, whom he assured her would someday be known as 'the world's greatest leader.'"


posted by Fred Clark 1:45 PM

 
WHITE LIES.

When the aforementioned Blogocrats turn the occasional eye away from their navels, they can be interesting.

Mickey Kaus, for instance, has what may be the journalistic scoop of the century: he has evidence that Ann Coulter said something factually correct!

And Andrew Sullivan notices the heart of the voucher debate in this article:

"In America, this is also a racial issue. Inner city minorities are trapped in terrible public schools with no escape. The question is increasingly not whether in an ideal world we should have universal, free, excellent public education. Most people would love that. The more salient question is: given that our public education is such a failure, how can we justify sacrificing new generations today to a system thats seems immune to real reform? And while governments promise change, real kids are being failed - failures that can take a lifetime of opportunity away."

Unfortunately, this analysis is tucked into a polemic, cackling, weirdly triumphalist essay, the ultimate goal of which is political gain for the Tories. Yes, the New York Times and the teacher's union reflexively oppose all voucher plans. But as Sullivan willfully disregards, many liberals also support some voucher programs. He's probably not encountered the slacktivist, but what about all those black parents he mistakes for Cleveland Tories? Or the editorial page of the Washington Post? Or E.J. Dionne? Many, many progressive people support experimentation with vouchers in poor school districts.

Sullivan also repeats the scurrilous, arrogant, racism-disguised-as-Horatio-Alger, Bell-Curve-eugenic-propaganda-masquerading-as-Bill-Bennett-moral-meritocracy boondoggle: "how much you spend is less important than the commitment of good teachers, a strong moral ethos, and a distinctive school identity."

Specifically, Sullivan is confusing "necessary" with "sufficient." He demonstrates (with the example of the money-pit Washington, D.C. school district) that substantial funding is not sufficient for quality education. He then asserts that funding is not necessary for good schools. That does not follow.

It's a common error, but it has serious, real-world consequences for poor kids in under-funded schools whose "failure to thrive" will be used as evidence that "they" lack a "strong moral ethos."

Connect the dots and here is what Sullivan is arguing: Rich white people are ethical, poor black people are unethical. That's very nearly the exact opposite of Catholic moral teaching.


posted by Fred Clark 11:59 AM

 
SLACKTIVIST HITS 460,000 UNIQUE MONTHLY VISITS.


And I can prove that claims of heavy traffic by Kausfiles, Andrew Sullivan, Altercation and Tapped are all grossly exaggerated!


Okay, actually, that's not true. And my approximation of Slacktivist's traffic is off by several orders of magnitude. But I was hoping to get the attention of the above to perhaps encourage the Blogocracy to regain an ounce of perspective, stop arguing about the number of surfers on the head of a pin, and remember that there are more important things to talk about than an online wankfest-and-tape-measure contest.


If you're not in the (closed, self-referential, irrelevant) loop on the how-many-visitors-does-the-American-Prospect-really-have discussion, you can catch up on what you've missed here.



posted by Fred Clark 11:14 AM

 
LIFTING THE VEIL.

So much to read, so little time. I've never read anything by novelist Rick Moody, author of The Ice Storm, Demonology and many other well-regarded books. His books are climbing up my reading priorities list, though, since learning a series of facts that have to be considered as positives for any writer's potential claim on my time:

1. He's a Mets fan (just like Philip Roth).

2. He is, he relates in this Slate "Diarist," intimidated by Terry Gross, the feared host of NPR's "Fresh Air."

3. According to Greil Marcus, he provided guitar and vocals for a rendition of Shania Twain's "You're Still the One" during a recent Syd Straw gig at the Village Underground in NYC.

4. His new "memoir with digressions," described in the New York Times as "a panic attack of a book," dwells at length upon Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Minister's Black Veil," a creepy little fable that makes the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter seem subtle. Over the length of, say, "The House of the Seven Gables," he can be wearying, but you have to like Hawthorny prose like this: "The grass of many years has sprung up and withered on that grave, the burial stone is moss-grown, and good Mr. Hooper's face is dust ..."

(The museum at the original House of the Seven Gables calls itself "Salem's premiere historic site," but this place might disagree.)


posted by Fred Clark 10:32 AM


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