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Wednesday, 18 December 2013 07:21

World of Warcraft: The Omnipresent Eye of the NSA


GoblinThink we can all agree these are pretty exciting times. Matter of fact, might be more exciting than we had any inkling. Recent revelations indicate we've all become inadvertent assets in governmental spy operations. You may have thought the NSA was everywhere, but you didn't know the half of it. And no, there shouldn't be a humming red LED under your bed.

The New York Times says our friends at the Black Chamber are not only opening our mail and listening to our phone calls but are now lurking in and monitoring on- line game rooms like World of Warcraft and Second Life. Are those trolls or undercover spooks? Or both? Not just an operations chief but a night elf- hunter guild leader as well. James Bond's new assignment- to enchant a goblin priest. Zelda- a princess, sure, but where does she go at night?

The professional eavesdroppers out of Fort Meade claim their only goal is to thwart terrorism but that's pretty much their answer to everything these days, including lunch at Quizno's. "Why do you always get the Italian combo?" "National Security." "Please clean up the broken glass resulting from your idiot friends' juvenile beer tossing antics." "Can't. National Security." "What happened to your toe?" "National F%*$!#G Security."

Who knows why they're really creeping around? Could be checking out skill sets. Filling emergency requests from division commanders. "Major! Wander around Call of Duty: Black Ops II. We need an infantryman who can go to his left. If he could take out multiple drones with a single RPG, that wouldn't hurt. Then check Grand Theft Auto for someone who can steer with his knees while switching magazines on an Uzi. And requisition more mushrooms from Mario."

Published in Guest Commentary


FistThere is no doubting that Pope Francis (formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina) is a different kind of Pope; kinder, gentler, friendlier, less judgmental, living simpler, more open, humbler and much more media savvy than many of the previous occupants of the Holy See. Although some progressives are leaping out of their Chuck Taylor All-Stars to get on board Pope Francis' social justice Pope-mobile – and there's nothing wrong with that -- it remains to be seen whether anything concrete comes out of the Pope's critique of trickle down economics and capitalism run amok.

By making his pronouncement he has accomplished at least one thing: he has exposed some of the conservative critics of the Catholic Church's social justice agenda for being hypocritical blowhards. For those who see the Pope focusing on the poor as part of a larger public relations campaign to rebuild the reputation of the Church, the Pope's exhortation ("Evangelii Gaudium") on economic issues has already accomplished several things; news about the Church's financial and sexual scandals have all but disappeared from view.

In an interview over the past weekend, Pope Francis – recently named "Person of the Year" by Time magazine, and The Advocate, a publication focusing on LGBT issues -- responded to the attack on him by radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Published in Guest Commentary


EyeIt seems our elected officials have no intention of reining in the National Security Agency's mad-scientist quest to know everything about our communications and movements. If we want our privacy back, we're going to have to fight for it.

Months after Edward Snowden spilled the beans, the NSA -- whose mission is supposed to be foreign surveillance -- is still compiling a comprehensive record of our domestic phone calls. Every time you dial, the government can find out who, what, when and where.

We hear a lot of patronizing talk from President Obama and other officials about how healthy it is that we're finally having a debate about surveillance and privacy, about security and freedom. The subtext, however, is clear: Get over it.

Interviewed Sunday on "Meet the Press," former NSA Director Michael Hayden offered a stunningly dismissive view of the Fourth Amendment: "We're protected against unreasonable search and seizure, all right? It doesn't say that all searches must be based upon reasonable suspicion. So now, unreasonable search and seizure depends upon the totality of circumstances in which you find yourself."

My circumstances, in their totality, are these: sitting on the couch, minding my own business. What am I doing to deserve an electronic stop-and-frisk?

Published in Guest Commentary
Friday, 13 December 2013 07:19

GOP’s Civil War Coming Home To Roost


Ryan1Last week, Newt Gingrich, the disgraced former House Speaker and one of the current stars of CNN's "Crossfire," and Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz were caught off guard when their conservative brethren came down hard on them for their having praised Nelson Mandela in the wake of his death. For a few days, the right wing blogosphere, always an arena of acrimony, became a landfill of outrage and animosity, which surprised both the Gingrich and Cruz camps. This week, it's Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan's turn to feel the heat and be caught off guard.

Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray have crafted a budget deal that appears to appeal to neither liberals nor conservatives, especially Tea Party conservatives. However, Ryan, who has claimed that the deal, while not fully realizing conservative goals of stripping the government bare, maintained that it is a step "in the right direction."

The budget deal unleashed the dogs of conservatism. The intensity of the barking from fellow conservatives seems to have surprised Ryan. He told "CBS This Morning" that "we were a little caught off guard" by the intensity of conservative criticism.

Generally universally adored by conservatives for his hardline economic and social conservatism, the Ryan-Murray budget deal -- but not the congressman – is being pilloried by some of those very same supporters.

Published in Guest Commentary


GOP Logo1FINALThe unusual display of reasonable behavior by House Republicans this week should be seen as a retreat — a change in tactics — but not a surrender. Democrats had better note the distinction.

Sooner or later, it had to dawn on the GOP that repeatedly reenacting Pickett's Charge was not advancing the party's agenda or enhancing its electoral prospects. In martial terms, President Obama and the Democrats held the high ground; they were the ones visibly making an effort to govern while Republicans did nothing but throw themselves into battles they were sure to lose.

The "fiscal cliff" showdown last December established the template: House Republicans made absolute and unrealistic demands, Obama said no, Democrats maintained their unity — and Republicans eventually caved amid bitter recriminations. This pattern held all year, through the debt-ceiling fight and the government shutdown. In each instance, I believe, Republicans could have won more concessions if they had chosen to negotiate rather than throw a tantrum.

The GOP establishment, what's left of it, understood what was happening. But far-right pressure groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action and the Club for Growth riled up the party's conservative base and infused true believers in Congress with false hope. Not coincidentally, such groups also filled their coffers with fundraising campaigns based on these quixotic battles.

Published in Guest Commentary


DropletCoca-Cola is running a stealth advertising campaign.

Stealth? Yes, it's a nationwide product promotion that's being run below the public radar! Why would a corporation as ad-dependent as Coke spend big bucks on advertising that it doesn't want consumers to notice? Shhhh — because the campaign is a surreptitious ploy to enlist restaurants in a marketing conspiracy that targets you, your children, and — of course — your wallet.

Coke calls its covert gambit "Cap the Tap," urging restaurateurs to stop offering plain old tap water to customers: "Every time your business fills a cup or glass with tap water, it pours potential profits down the drain." Cap the Tap can put a stop to that, says Coke, "by teaching (your) crew members or waitstaff suggestive selling techniques to convert requests for tap water into orders for revenue-generating beverages."

The program provides a guide for restaurant managers who agree to direct Coke's sneak attack on customers. It also supplies a handy backroom poster to remind waitstaff "when and how to suggestively sell beverages," plus a participant's guide to put "suggestive selling" foremost in mind as staff confronts the enemy... uh, I mean customers. Tactics include outflanking those recalcitrant customers who insist on water. Just switch the sales pitch to bottled water — remember, Coca-Cola also owns Dasani, one of the top-selling brands of bottled water in the U.S.

Early in its Cap the Tap scheme, the beverage behemoth offered two incentive programs for waitstaff: "Suggest More and Score" and "Get Your Fill." Both were competitions meant to spur servers to push more Coke on American restaurant-goers.

Published in Guest Commentary
Thursday, 12 December 2013 07:44

Nuclear Disarmament: Beyond Iran


BombCloudIran! So long our enemy-in-waiting, just asking for it, y'know?

No wonder Americans are confused about the idea of maybe not going to war with that country one of these days, at least according to USA Today, which reported: "The White House and Iran face an uphill selling job to convince Americans to embrace the interim nuclear pact negotiated with Tehran last month."

Two out of three Americans who have actually heard something about the accord don't trust it, the paper explains, because, in essence, Iran took American hostages that one time (for no reason) and have been uncooperative toward our interests ever since. Thus, however hopeful or problematic the Geneva agreement between Iran and the P5 + 1 nations (the U.S., Russia, China, France, U.K. and Germany) may be, here in the land of all-that-is-exceptional, pop culture and superficial opinion polls rule and cynical ignorance counts as news.

Not only did the story fail to address or even hint at the history of U.S.-Iranian relations back to, let us say, 1953, and the CIA's involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, followed by the installation of the hated (but West-compliant) shah, it overlooked — this seems to be a requirement of mainstream journalism — the glaringly obvious fact that the P5 powers, adamant in their determination to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal, actually possesses thousands upon thousands of nuclear weapons themselves.

Even without Iran's joining the nuclear club, the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is set at five minutes to midnight. We're as much in danger of destroying ourselves as we've ever been. Why isn't this relevant?

Published in Guest Commentary


IowaCapitolThe far-right American Legislative Exchange Council claims that every member of the state legislature in two states is a member of their organization.

Recently leaked documents from the "ALEC Board Meeting, August 6, 2013, Chicago, Illinois," list the number and percentage of each state's legislature that have signed onto ALEC; and, under "# of Legislators," and "# of ALEC Members," Iowa has 150 in each column, and South Dakota has 105 in each column. The third column, for both states, shows the "% of ALEC Membership in Legislature" as being "100%." At the opposite end, the lowest percentage is 1%, in New York. The second-lowest is New Jersey, 2%. The third and fourth-lowest, tied, are just 4%, shown in both Maine and Vermont. The fifth-lowest is New Hampshire, 6%.

That table appears on page 39 of their report.

Page 20 presents the text of the oath of office that the leading ALEC member in each state must swear to in order to win or retain his position: "I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization [ALEC] first." ALEC's Senior Director of Public Affairs told Britain's Guardian, when asked about this: "All legislators are beholden to their constituents' interests first - if they are not, they will be held accountable at the ballot box." In other words: the only thing that ALEC's lead legislator in any state might stand to lose if he violates his oath to ALEC is the vast contributions from the corporations that fund ALEC, which will then probably stop throwing more money into his campaigns. Of course, the purpose of those mega-corporate campaign donations is, for each such state leader, to make sure that he "will be held accountable at the ballot box," if he violates his pledge to ALEC. In other words: ALEC survives simply by fooling conservative voters to vote for the stooges that the corporations that fund ALEC want to write the laws for them.

In some countries, this is called "corruption," or even "fascism," but in the United States, it's called merely "politics," or even (by the five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court) "freedom of speech."

Published in Guest Commentary


WPAmap1For many years the American Right -- and many of the most powerful elements of corporate and Wall Street elite -- have conducted a war on public employees.

Their campaign has taken many forms. They have tried to slash the number of public sector jobs, cut the pay and benefits of public sector workers, and do away with public employee rights to collective bargaining. They have discredited the value of the work performed by public employees -- like teachers, police and firefighters -- going so far as to argue that "real jobs" are created only by the private sector.

Last week a conservative court ruled that by going through bankruptcy the city of Detroit could rid itself of its obligation under the state constitution to make good on its pension commitments to its retirees.

It should surprise no one that the Republican Chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, is demanding that a budget deal with the Democrats include a 350% increase in pension contribution by all civilian federal employees. That would effectively mean a pay cut of about 2% for every federal worker. And that cut would come after a three-year pay freeze and multiple furloughs caused by the Republican "sequester."

Unbelievably, in Illinois the right wing Chicago Tribune and the state's corporate elite snookered the Democratic-controlled legislature into passing changes in that state's pension laws that slashed the pensions of its public employees. The changes affected all state employees and many of Illinois' teachers. All of them had faithfully made their required contributions to the state's pension funds for years, even though the legislature regularly failed to make its required payments so it could avoid raising taxes on the state's wealthiest citizens.

Published in Guest Commentary


MandelaVotingLast night, it was difficult to cut through the fog of reaction from current day conservatives to the death of Nelson Mandela. However, despite the kind words and the tributes, it should never be forgotten that the conservative movement in this country took great pains to condemn and demonize Mandela and the African National Congress, doing all they could to undermine the economic boycott of South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement.

Nelson Mandela and his comrades with the African National Congress were not always the toast of the town, especially in Washington, D.C.

President Ronald Reagan, who placed the ANC on the U.S. terror list in the 1980s (a designation that wasn't removed until 2008), labeled the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 as "immoral" and "utterly repugnant." Instead, the Reagan Administration adopted "a position a position of constructive engagement towards South Africa." The Nation's Sam Kleiner reported in early July.

"Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker pushed for expanded trade with Johannesburg under the belief that it was a strong ally in the Cold War. While divestment activists urged the United States to isolate the South African regime, the Reagan administration was pushing for more trade and engagement."

In 1985, Rep. Dick Cheney voted against a congressional resolution calling for the release of Mandela and the recognition of the African National Congress. North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms "turned his back during Mandela's visit to the U.S. Capitol."

Published in Guest Commentary
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