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The Parable of Little Men in the Television

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[I’m blatantly stealing a joke from Douglas Adams and re-purposing it as a critique of American media. With no further delay….]

In an interview with a Democratic politician, A Sunday Show said he was told that Republicans claim they didn’t understand how televisions work, and were convinced that there must be lots of little men inside the box, manipulating images at high speed. The Democrat explained to the Sunday Show host about high-frequency modulations of the electromagnetic spectrum, transmitters and receivers, amplifiers and cathode ray tubes, scan lines moving across and down a phosphorescent screen. The host listened to the engineer with careful attention, nodding his head at every step of the argument. At the end he pronounced himself satisfied. He really did now understand how televisions work. “But I expect there are just a few little men in there, aren’t there?”


If you don’t like this, blame me, not Adams…


Written by John Whitehouse

May 31, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Posted in News Media, Random

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Why Our Pundits Are Broken

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Andrew Sullivan on the Ryan Budget:

There are two possible responses to the news that the House has put its votes on the line and endorsed the Ryan plan for the budget. It behooves me to note that I doubted they would ever get this specific, given their refusal to raise any of these specifics in the election campaign. You can gloat that the GOP has committed political suicide by essentially ending Medicare and Medicaid as we know them, but that is not a substantive response. They deserve political props for nailing this proposal to the door of the White House.

But the substantive criticism is still salient. It is that simply shifting Medicare to private insurance plans with subsidies that will mean progressively less and less healthcare for seniors does not really bring down healthcare costs – just shifts their responsibility away from the federal government. The likelihood that the insurance companies will actually want this new more vulnerable population without at some point, begging the government to provide more resources is … well, slim. But since the GOP proposal is simply indifferent to whether people have healthcare or not (they effectively withdraw coverage for all those covered by the ACA), this is a feature, not a bug.

Only a conservative plan would be lauded for it’s boldness politically. No one was saying how much political respect the anti-war Democrats deserved a decade ago; indeed, the likes of Sullivan called them fifth columnists.

But the same is true even more recently: no pundit praised the public option the House passed (or the even more progressive robust public option) as brave politically. No, they called them just plain stupid and political non-starters. And that’s what the House passed! Exactly what we have here!

But now that someone proposes a plan to make – as Sullivan himself describes it – “progressively less and less healthcare for seniors,” pundits such as Sullivan himself are falling over themselves to praise it for being bold and brave even when they disagree. None of these pundits gave the same deference to Nancy Pelosi. None. The closest was Sullivan saying the public option was wildly popular and then meekly saying the death of it made the bill move more right and be suddenly palatable. Not at all comparable.

There is no boldness, no bravery in failed policy, left or right. Dennis Kucinich proposed a Department of Peace: that’s not brave.

Ask yourself this question: why is not political criticism the same thing as substantive criticism? Ought they be the same?

Written by John Whitehouse

April 16, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Afternoon / Early Evening (4/2) Cote D’Ivoire Running Thread (Complete)

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Refugee Camp, courtesy the Department for International Development

Picture from here, used under a creative commons license. It depicts a refugee camp in Liberia.

This is the new thread, from about 2:00 EDT to it becomes too full.

2:20 EDT: Gbagbo forces retook the strategic bridge surrounding his palace:

The fierce standoff between fighters loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president of Cote d’Ivoire, and Alassane Ouattara, the country”s internationally recognised leader, intensified on Saturday.  Gbagbo’s force retook the bridge leading to his presidential palace on Saturday, after the opposition had appeared poised to topple the controversial leader.

[. . .]

Pro-Ouattara forces had marched easily into the country’s largest city, where they encircled the presidential palace and Gbagbo’s home on Thursday and Friday. They intend to battle Gbagbo’s forces in their stronghold, Kouakou Leon Alla, a spokesperson for the defence minister and the prime minister, said.

[. . .]

In the Cocody neighbourhood where the presidential mansion is located, families slept in bathrooms and on the floor as successive blasts punctuated an all-night assault, continuing into Saturday morning. Machine-gun fire could be heard at either end of the waterside highway leading to the palace.  In the Rivera neighbourhood armed members of the “young patriots,” the youth wing of Gbagbo’s camp, patrolled areas and organised checkpoints.

“At the cost of our blood, we are going to die so that the republic survives, for our children, because this is an unjust war,” an armed young patriot, calling himself General La Poudriere or Minefield, said.  Military officials loyal to Ivory Coast’s entrenched leader on Saturday called on their forces to resist rebels who are trying to depose him after he has refused to cede power.

It seems that a siege is inevitable given that Ouattara controls so much land and the airport (with UN assistance there).

2:20 EDT: A Red Cross Spokesman confirmed to the BBC that they’ve identified 800 dead in Duekoue:

We came on spot on Thursday, our teams were there and the sight that presented itself was obviously shocking and horrific. Up to now, at the beginning it was impossible to say how many people were actually killed there. But with the figures we have up to now, with different sources and also our own people, several hundred people. So we have a confirmation of about up to at least 800 people having been killed.

2:30 EDT: Here’s a Cote D’Ivoire map where you can see where Abidjan is (on the coast towards the east) and where Duekoue is (western part of the country.

(Taken from this website under a Creative Commons License.)

2:35 EDT: There are some calls for the UN or State Department to use force under the Right to Protect that’s been cited in Libya. One, I don’t think there are enough UN forces in the country right now (1,400 French troops is the highest I’ve seen) Two, it would require close, urban combat with a lot casualties. No one is willing to do that in Libya or anywhere else short of Afghanistan or Iraq.

There may be something the UN or State Department could do, but they’re not willing to send the cavalry in on the ground. The African Union hasn’t even been willing to go that far.

The UN, State Department, France, and the AU have called for Gbagbo to leave. He’s rather incite nationalism and fight until his supporters desert him or are dead. That’s the biggest problem and it’s not something outside forces have many ways left to effect in the short term.

2:45 EDT: More perspective from this New York Times report by Adam Nossiter:

Throughout most of the crisis, civilian deaths have largely come at the hands of Mr. Gbagbo’s forces, eliciting threats of criminal charges from international prosecutors. Human rights groups have also accused forces loyal to Mr. Ouattara of some extrajudicial killings, but neither side has been implicated in a massacre even close to this scale. The total death toll previously estimated by the United Nations was about 500, over four months of tensions and sporadic violence.

Many of Mr. Ouattara’s fighters are former rebels from a 2002 uprising that divided the country in half, and they have come under his banner only recently. The rebels have a history of human rights abuses and had largely stayed on the sidelines of the political crisis.

Duékoué is one of the strategic towns in the country’s cocoa-growing region they seized last week. A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross “saw a very large number of bodies” there, said a spokeswoman, Dorothea Krimitsas.

“They were shocked by the scale of it,” she said. “We don’t have exact information as to who is behind this. There were at least 800.”

The conflict between Mr. Ouattara and Mr. Gbagbo has unleashed longstanding ethnic rivalries, particularly in the lawless western regions of the country. The Red Cross said the large number of dead it saw in the town on Thursday and Friday were apparently victims of “intercommunal violence.” But it did not assign responsibility for the killings.

The rebels also dismiss control of the radio station:

“What is preoccupying us is the liberation of the people of Abidjan,” said Capt. Léon Alla. “Not the R.T.I., which is nothing but propaganda,” he said, referring to Radio Télévision Ivorienne.

Patience and discipline from Ouattara’s forces/allies would be useful now, but it remains to be seen if they’re capable of that.

2:50 EDT: Ghana would seriously consider a request for Asylum if Gbagbo made one:

. . . Foreign Affairs Minister, Alhaji Mohammed Mumuni told Citi News that although no such request has been made, government will consider granting Laurent Gbagbo amnesty if he requests for it.

“I can tell you on authority that there has not been anything of that sort. There has been nothing like President Gbagbo has written to President Mills to request for political asylum”.

“Of course as we know President Mills and his sense of compassion and he being a unifier, I have no doubt that if President Gbagbo finds it fit to make such a request President Mills will consider it very well.”

3:15 EDT: Video of (what I presume to be) the communique from Gbagbo’s government on state TV is posted here. I don’t speak French so I can’t translate. Anyone available? (Also, linked on that page, footage of Gbagbo drinking tea. Apparently he wants to upstage Nero.)

Here is the Al Jazeera report:

3:30 EDT: AFP is reporting 4 UN workers were “seriously injured” by Gbagbo’s forces. It’s not clear which skirmish this is regarding, but I’ve seen reports of a couple such times when the UN has had to return fire. They might all be from one single event, or a number of them, I don’t know.

Update: the BBC says the four were on a humanitarian mission in Abidjan, so this seems like a separate incident.

Additionally, British Foreign Minister William Hague commented on ths situation. (translated):

William Hague said on Saturday he was “extremely worried” about violence in Côte d’Ivoire and urged “all parties to exercise restraint” , while the fighting raged in the capital Abidjan and NGOs reported numerous abuses. “All the abuses of human rights that could occur in the city and elsewhere in Ivory Coast have been investigated and those responsible must be prosecuted,” said Hague.

3:45 EDT: The BBC reports that communities in the west of the country are arming themselves, so this has the potential to spiral out of control all over again, even if Gbagbo gave up right now.

3:50 EDT: The Guardian reports from a Liberian refugee camp:

At the Toe Town transit camp, the shock and fear is palpable. Terrified and traumatised, more people flood into the camp by the day. There are constant reports of savage attacks on villages by rebels armed with guns and machetes. Their orders, according to the refugees, are “to kill everyone and anyone”. There are even reports of cannibalism by rebel forces.

Rosalie Ziminin, also from Toulépleu, grabbed every member of her family that she could when the pro-Ouattara rebels came. Fifteen of them made it to the transit camp, but two of her children – aged two and five – were lost in the chaos as they escaped the attack. She still has no idea where they are. Ziminin, like many Ivorians, has not forgotten the devastation from Ivory Coast’s last civil war in 2002. She lost everything during the fighting which claimed the lives of both her mother and father. “I’ve only just rebuilt my life,” she said yesterday. “I’ve lost everything again and I don’t want to go back.”

More than 100,000 Ivorians have sought refuge in Liberia as the rebels have moved south towards Abidjan. Most are being housed and fed by Liberian families. In some of the smaller, more remote villages the number of fleeing Ivorians outnumbers Liberians by 20 to 1.


3:55 EDT: Latest reports seem to indicate that those four UN workers seriously injured were from another separate incident. I can’t tell for certain.

4:15 EDT: Elizabeth Dickinson’s post from this week was sent to me again on Twitter, and it’s worth re-reading because it lays out clearly the limits of western action possible in Cote D’Ivoire. (And Russia will veto a lot of things that France and the U.S. are willing to do.)

4:20 EDT: HIV drugs in Abidjan may be running out.

Relief groups have also warned that fighting could mean a disruption in the supply of anti-retroviral treatment for people living with HIV. Ivory Coast has an estimated 480,000 people living with HIV and is one of the countries worst affected by the AIDS epidemic in West Africa.

“We are very worried that although some HIV treatment is available, supplies will run out in the next two to three weeks if the current import embargo on goods is not lifted,” said Sosthene Dougrou, executive director of Alliance Cote d’Ivoire, a national charity which provides support to people living with HIV.

“Our office has had to close because of the fighting; we are unable to access money from the banks as they too have been shut and we can’t get the programme funds so money is running out,” Dougorou said in a statement.

4:30 EDT: Save the Children, who Glenn Beck thinks is part of a liberal conspiracy (or is it the caliphate conspiracy?), tweets: “Children fleeing Cote d’Ivoire scared, vulnerable and often alone, say#savethechildren staff working in refugee camps on Liberian border.”

BBC’s live coverage is done for the day. We’re going to keep going, though there doesn’t seem to be any imminent developments about to happen.

4:45 EDT: Some testimony from the Duekoue region about what happened. The Google translation from the original French seems dodgy, so I won’t quote it, but it sounds harrowing and with troops completely out of control.

5:30 EDT: Gbagbo’s strategy is becoming clear: use trained soldiers for his last line of defense and use civilians, such as the Young Patriots, offensively; the problem with this (among many, many problems) is that it’s going to lead to massive slaughter and looting since those civilians are prone to violence.

Laurent Gbagbo has now implemented a dual strategy of defense. Soldiers loyal to him were known to congregate in different military bases in Abidjan while the civilians were, themselves, were invited to take action to protect several strategic points in the Ivorian economic capital.

This afternoon, we could well see groups of young patriots converge on the presidential palace in the Plateau and the residence of the outgoing head of state in Cocody. Leaders in this war for control of power is inevitably the people who suffer the most. Abidjan many trapped in their homes including start running out of food.

Until and unless resources run out, I’m not sure what can be done. Clearly, that’s not going to happen overnight.

5:40 EDT: Good sign, if my translation of this is accurate, Ouattara’s government is pledging to try anyone for atrocities committed (while still denying they were forces loyal to him). I’m skeptical because that’s what the west wants to hear, but on the other hand, it is what we want to hear. That’s not nothing. The proof will be in the pudding of course.

You can read a poorly translated version here.

5:45 EDT: A pro-Gbagbo site (so beware, since it’s likely rank propaganda) says that Gbagbo forces took the hotel that Ouattara had been staying at with UNOCI. There had previously been reports that the hotel had been evacuated (the only reason I’m even including this update).

7:00 EDT: The curfew is extended until Sunday, per Ouattara’s government

This is how bad the refugee situation is in Guiglo:

Bishop Gneba said more than 30,000 refugees had flooded the town of about 50,000 since January. Many are being sheltered at the Salesian priests’ Mission of St. Theresa of the Baby Jesus. They are among more than 1 million people displaced by the violence since January.

“There’s a traumatic humanitarian situation there,” Bishop Gneba said. “They need everything: food, medicine, water, sanitation. People have lost everything, houses, clothes, they do not even have a mat to sleep on.”

UN Col. Rais said there are nearly 400 peacekeepers based at Guiglo who were doing what they could to help with water and food.

The town almost doubles in size and 400 peacekeepers are there to help. Note that current estimates have it at a million refugees total, so this is just 3% of the story.

That wraps up this particular liveblog. A new one will go up shortly for late night and overnight. Thanks for reading and getting the word out. A reminder to donate to Oxfam too.


Tell FOX: Native Americans are Constitutional

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Last week, John Stossell said that “no group in America has been more helped by the government than the American Indians.” There was immediate pushback, but now there’s some pushback against FOX as a whole from Native Americans:

The obtuse rhetorical questions have created groans of outrage from coast-to-coast in Indian Country and prompted Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council, to write a letter to Fox News president Roger Ailes demanding an apology from Stossel and the network.

“In a matter of minutes, Mr. Stossel made a series of misinformed and irresponsible statements that has insulted an entire population of Native Americans and highlighted his level of disrespect and misunderstanding toward Indians,” Allan writes in his letter.

Neither Stossel nor the other Fox personalities in the segment are aware that, unlike other minorities or ethnicities, Indians have a unique relationship with the federal government through executive orders and treaties made as — often scant — compensation for land grabs, conquests and genocide.

Had Stossel been better informed, Allan writes, he may have learned “U.S. military campaigns ordered to forcibly remove Indians from those lands, did so with lies, deception and ultimately by slaughtering our men, women and children.”

The entire letter can be found here.

Also, it’s worth noting that the Constitution practically demands the existence of a Bureau of Indian Affairs. – Congress is specifically charged with regulating commerce “with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” To make a very long story short (i.e.: the framers did not explain well at all what the status of tribes were, mostly because it did not come up much), the Constitution has been interpreted as saying that Indians are not part of states, and that the federal government has to deal with them. That’s why there’s a Bureau of Indian Affairs, john Stossel. The same reason there’s a State Department or a Treasury Department: the federal government has specific agencies to do the specific duties the Constitution lays out.

But this is a somewhat charitable interpretation: the reality has been worse. One of the most famous Indian cases is Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. In this case, famed Justice John Marshall held that “domestic dependent” nations did not own legal title to the land (no matter how long they had held it) but instead legal title was held by the United States, and these native populations could use it. This meant that Native American tribes could only sell their land to the United States government. In essence, this made Native populations the wards of the United States.

This has been the rationale used throughout all of American history to oppress Native American populations: that they are wards of the state that America must do something with. That’s how we’ve ended up with Indian wars, forced relocations, and essentially genocide. For John Stossel to repurpose this as something good for Native Americans is truly astonishing. Stossel is lucky to still be employed.

Written by John Whitehouse

March 31, 2011 at 12:38 pm

No One Said This Was Optimal

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Greg Sargant quotes Obama en route to drawing a silly conclusion:

Rather, the more important part of Obama’s 2007 quote is this one:

“In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.”

Putting aside the legal questions here, Obama is acting in violation of the lessons he once took from history. Along these lines, Dem Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, who added his voice to the criticism of Obama’s decision, made an important point today. Larson noted that even if Obama technically is in compliance with the War Powers Resolution, he is violating its spirit: “To insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”

Obama very well may have had his reasons for not consulting Congress as extensively as he might have — time was of the essence; the president expects this to be wrapped up quickly; he doesn’t envision this as a full-scale war; etc. But it’s very obvious that Obama’s approach is at odds with his own instincts and his own reading of history, at least as it stood when he was the reader and other presidents were the lead actors.

I would certainly say that the current debate (outside of this post) proves that it’s better to have the informed consent of Congress too! Obama is getting pilloried for his actions, and he’s not receiving the bump Presidents normally do from using military action.

But saying that it makes Obama “in violation of the lessons he once took from history” is over the top and incorrect. It implies a Manichean view of history – either you follow the best possible procedure or you are in violation. That’s an incorrect method of appraising Presidential action. Using an extreme example, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War without prior Congressional authorization in a way that was almost certainly unconstitutional. But facts on the ground demanded it, Congress later ratified it, and in the end historians have almost universally hailed the move.  Now, this is far less serious a situation than that. But there’s a lot of precedence to Presidents being forced to take actions that might be objectively bad, but are necessary given the circumstances. There’s even precedence for it going too far (the Steel Seizure case). In short, Obama didn’t violate a lesson of history. He took an action that he felt was the best course of action but was in an ideal world sub-optimal.

He simply felt the costs of getting authorization subsequently (while real) were more palatable to him than the costs of waiting – which Sargant makes an informed guess at.

This is just a continuation of people who want to make some sort of philosophical or legal point against the intervention in Libya because they don’t know enough of the facts on the ground to criticize it on the merits. And that is a result of a stunning lack of transparency coming from the White House. The easiest way to stop these sorts of silly arguments would be for reputed major proponents such as Amb. Rice, Sec. Clinton, and Samantha Power to do rounds on talk shows instead of the the military. I’ve seen them all on talk shows previously, they communicate well. Get them out there!

On a side note, Larson’s comment of the spirit of the War Powers Resolution is hogwash: It was passed over a veto in the wake of a President lying the Congress into war and every President since has felt it partially unconstitutional. And as a matter of practice since it was passed, Congress has not always had prior consent to actions. I don’t think what’s even legal in the law itself is clear, much less that there’s uncontested “spirit” which just so happens to contradict the plain text that gives a President 60 days.)

Malcolm Gladwell is Still Wrong: Mohammed Nabbous

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Gladwell in October:

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life

Manuel Castelis:

The spontaneous social movements in Tunisia and Egypt have caught political analysts on the hop. As a sociologist and communication expert, were you surprised by the ability of the network society in these two countries to mobilise itself?

No, not really. In my book Communication Power, I devote a large part to explaining, on an empirical basis, how changes to communication technologies create new possibilities for the self-organisation and self-mobilisation of society, by-passing the barriers of censorship and repression imposed by the state. The issue clearly isn’t dependent on technology. Internet is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The roots of rebellion lie in exploitation, oppression and humiliation. However, the possibility of rebelling without being quashed immediately depends on the density and speed of mobilisation and that depends on the ability created by the technologies which I have classified as mass self-communication.

Could we consider these popular uprisings as a new turning point in the history and evolution of the internet or should we analyse them as a logical, albeit extremely important, consequence of the implementation of the Net in the world?

These popular insurrections in the Arab world constitute a turning point in the social and political history of humanity. And perhaps the most important of the internet-led and facilitated changes in all aspects of life, society, the economy and culture. And this is just the start. The movement is picking up speed, despite Internet being an old technology, and deployed for the first time in 1969.

What Castelis understands that Gladwell does not is that Twitter is not a substitute for strategy. But it is a real time method of communication that is extremely difficult for government’s to censor or restrict without severely restricting their economies.

We live in an age when an ordinary person living in Benghazi can become a journalist of the highest order, driving around in the middle of gunfights to record what is going on when no one else in the world is willing and able to do so. Last night, I listened to Mohammad Nabbous’s audio and watched video of him in Benghazi. While I slept, while still trying to record audio, he was shot and killed in the line of duty. Twitter and facebook and livestream did not make this happen. But they opened previously unthought of lines of communication that did allow Nabbous to become an activist.

Social media is not sufficient for anyone to be an activist, but Gladwell for some bizarre reason compares it to the resolve King needed, when he should have compared it to black churches, telephones, dorm rooms, etc. – ways for the message to be spread without using compromised media (I say that having no idea of the institutional history of media in the South.)

Anyways, I salute the work Mohammed Nabbous and everyone like him who is using any media, social or otherwise, to get out a story otherwise too dangerous to tell. I only hope people are listening instead of demeaning the medium.

Written by John Whitehouse

March 19, 2011 at 10:54 am

Al Jazeera English

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Because it gives you the news, not talking heads discussing what the news might be:

Written by John Whitehouse

March 18, 2011 at 11:34 pm

Posted in News Media

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