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Monday, December 19, 2005  

A holiday wish: Don't forget New Orleans

I think we need to take some time away from preparing for whatever holiday we may celebrate to reconsider the greatest American tragedy in a century, the displacement of thousands of people from the wonderful, historic city of New Orleans. Though less than four months have passed since the devastating impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the catastrophe is already moving away from the front pages of newspapers and out of our thoughts. Yes, there is breaking news that deserves our attention. The Bush administration's domestic spying on American citizens without court approval is the issue of the moment, and a very serious one. But, we must be able to consider more than one important issue at a time to understand the complex world we live in.

The editorial board of the New York Times recently said what needs to be said about rebuilding New Orleans.

We are about to lose New Orleans. Whether it is a conscious plan to let the city rot until no one is willing to move back or honest paralysis over difficult questions, the moment is upon us when a major American city will die, leaving nothing but a few shells for tourists to visit like a museum.

We said this wouldn't happen. President Bush said it wouldn't happen. He stood in Jackson Square and said, "There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans." But it has been over three months since Hurricane Katrina struck and the city is in complete shambles.

There are many unanswered questions that will take years to work out, but one is make-or-break and needs to be dealt with immediately. It all boils down to the levee system. People will clear garbage, live in tents, work their fingers to the bone to reclaim homes and lives, but not if they don't believe they will be protected by more than patches to the same old system that failed during the deadly storm. Homeowners, businesses and insurance companies all need a commitment before they will stake their futures on the city.

At this moment the reconstruction is a rudderless ship. There is no effective leadership that we can identify. How many people could even name the president's liaison for the reconstruction effort, Donald Powell? Lawmakers need to understand that for New Orleans the words "pending in Congress" are a death warrant requiring no signature.

The rumbling from Washington that the proposed cost of better levees is too much has grown louder. Pretending we are going to do the necessary work eventually, while stalling until the next hurricane season is upon us, is dishonest and cowardly. Unless some clear, quick commitments are made, the displaced will have no choice but to sink roots in the alien communities where they landed.

The price tag for protection against a Category 5 hurricane, which would involve not just stronger and higher levees but also new drainage canals and environmental restoration, would very likely run to well over $32 billion. That is a lot of money. But that starting point represents just 1.2 percent of this year's estimated $2.6 trillion in federal spending, which actually overstates the case, since the cost would be spread over many years. And it is barely one-third the cost of the $95 billion in tax cuts passed just last week by the House of Representatives.

Total allocations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror have topped $300 billion. All that money has been appropriated as the cost of protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. But what was the worst possible case we fought to prevent?

Losing a major American city.

Losing an American city. We are told to believe the risk of losing an American city is so great that the U.S. must engage in torture of innocent people whisked off to foreign soil, and, illegal spying on its own citizens, to prevent the loss from occurring. But, at the same time, an American city can be lost to a natural disaster and disinterest. Cognitive dissonance is nothing new in American politics. However, this situation is worse than most because a clock is ticking. If the former residents of New Orleans are not provided with a viable plan for rebuilding their home city soon, they will have no reason to return. Currently, thousands of them remain housed in hotels throughout the country at government expense. Most of these people had both employment and houses they owned before being forced to flee. All along, the better option for them has been to return to where they have roots, not to be scattered to the winds.

As the editorial board of at the NYT said, now is the time for Congress to act, but it is continuing to drag its heels. The most meaningful gift many of us can give this year is an email or letter to our Congressmen and Congresswomen saying we believe the reconstruction of New Orleans to be the highest national priority. At most, giving that gift will cost you fifteen minutes and a postage stamp. Please do it.

What's the art?

The fleur de lys has long been considered a symbol of New Orleans.

8:45 PM

Tuesday, December 06, 2005  

News: 'Gay chat mayor' Jim West recalled

It will not be official until the election results are certified, but Jim West of Spokane lost the title of mayor today. He gained notoriety in May as a resolutely Right Wing politician who trolled the Internet for barely legal male sexual partners. The scandal culminated in the recall election that ended at 8 p.m. Throughout the saga, West claimed that he had done nothing to warrant losing his job and that he was being pilloried for behavior that was purely personal.

The Spokesman-Review has the story.

Spokane voters ousted Mayor Jim West today.

Preliminary results in the all-mail special election have 65 percent of the ballots marked in favor of the recall, and 35 percent against.

The 59,501 ballots counted represent 54 percent of the 110,589 sent to voters nearly three weeks ago. Ballots will continue to arrive at the elections office for the next several days, but the margin of support for the recall makes it mathematically unlikely that West can reverse the results.

The charge on the ballot, based on reports in The Spokesman-Review, said West should be removed for using "his office for personal benefit." In his ballot response, West denied using his office for personal gain, said he had helped move the city forward by solving long-standing problems and better management practices, and apologized for "errors in my private life."

Under state law, West will officially be removed from office on Dec. 16, the day the election results are certified. Council President Dennis Hession will become the mayor pro tem until the council selects a replacement to serve the remaining two years of West's term.

West's problems with sexual misconduct may have begun decades ago, but the momentum for a recall election began when The Spokesman-Review published a long article reporting allegations that he may have molested boys while serving as a deputy sheriff, solicited teenagers for sex and offered city positions to young men as part of seduction attempts. Controversy arose over the newspaper's use of a computer technician posing as a high school senior at Gay.com, an Internet site where homosexual men socialize, to confirm West's identity and behavior. The computer technician mimicked the conduct of a teen who reported meeting West there, being courted, and ultimately having sex with the mayor in his car.

Both the public and some journalists questioned the ethics of the The Spokesman-Review using a hired hand to elicit information from West. The ruse ended after West appeared at a designated place for a sexual rendevous with the person he believed to be a high school senior.

I have never accepted West's claim that his behavior was solely personal. There are too many indicia connecting his secret personal life and his public life as a powerful politician. He used his position as mayor to impress would-be conquests. His city-owned computer was sometimes used for visiting Gay.com and similar sites. Some of those visits occurred during working hours. West downloaded thousands of pictures of men, some of them nude, others engaged in sex acts, to the computer. In addition, he is alleged to have offered a human resources position to a young man he was trying to date. Another young man says he was appointed to the city's human rights commission after West made bumbling attempts to attract his sexual interest on line. The unwanted advances continued until the he resigned his position and ended contact with West. There is additional evidence, but I think this information sufficient to establish that West's private and public lives had merged, with his apparent obsession with seeking out young males for sex getting the upper hand.

Some people are particularly offended by West's opposition to gay rights legislation as a state legislator, majority leader and mayor. They say that his role of closeted gay nemesis of homosexuals was particularly reprehensible. There is irony in that. But, I don't believe that West's homosexuality, which he denied until the scandal, is the key to the situation. A heterosexual politician who sought out girls and young women for sex, using city resources, and offering them paid or unpaid positions in the city bureaucracy, would be just as much in the wrong.

Citizens of Spokane have appeared reluctant to confront a politician with a reputation for playing hard ball until now. The recall campaign was led by a couple of people with no political experience or financial clout. It was underfunded, and, poorly publicized except for newspaper coverage. Though they gradually withdrew tacit support for him, business and most political leaders did not directly admonish West. Religious leaders were silent. The big picture that emerged was of a city in which people are reluctant to challenge the powerful. The secrecy of the ballot process seems to have given the city its voice. That voice has said 'No' to Jim West.

10:30 PM

Friday, December 02, 2005  

Internet: What's wrong with Wikipedia

Pajamas Media recently published comments from several bloggers about the Internet's foremost free, 'independent' encyclopedia. Wikipedia is a collection of material, some quite good, some godawful, contributed by volunteers. Unfortunately, the inability to distinguish fact from opinion is rampant, particularly on the Internet. Facts are, of course, provable, or, at least, the information closest to being confirmable. Opinion is whatever someone thinks, whether he has a rational basis for those thoughts or not. A roll-your-own encyclopedia encourages the distribution of opinion masquerading as fact.

My most recent bout with Wikipedia occurred after fact-based information emerged about New Orleans during the tragic first week following Hurricane Katrina. By the time that information became available there were already entries about the situation at Wikipedia. They embraced the sensationalist claim that thousands of people were rioting and looting, and that numerous assaults, rapes and murders had occurred. It was said that prisoners had been released from penal facilities and were running amok. As you know, only a handful of violent crimes occurred among the estimated 30,000 people who were stranded in the Superdome and civic center for as many as five days. Claims of looting were also exaggerated and there weren't any riots. Prisoners were either moved to higher levels of facilities or transported out of the area. They were not released.

I edited a couple of Wikipedia entries to replace the conjecture and wild speculation with the newly established factual information. For example, once the coroner confirmed the number of deaths in the Superdome and civic center, I posted those figures. Each time, for about a month, the editing I had done was replaced by people who took the entry back to the scenario of violent blacks rampaging. One would not have guessed that there was actually nominal violence or that there were issues of significant economic, social and political substance involved. After all, we are talking about the greatest natural disaster in the history of the country leading to the largest migration of American citizens ever. Eventually, I stopped editing the entries, allowing them to revert to 'the savages ransacked New Orleans.' The tenacity with which that viewpoint was being pushed confirmed that on an 'independent' encyclopedia opinion will often silence fact.

Letting anyone contribute to the site guarantees that result. Consider an excerpt from a Wikipedia entry about the League of the South, a hate group that promotes white supremacy.

The League of the South is a nationalist and secessionist organization headquartered in the Southern United States with chapters and members in a majority of states nationwide. Its leader is Michael Hill. It advocates for the South and Southern heritage in the realms of political and social discourse and over time the League hopes to achieve greater autonomy for the South either within a revived constitutional federalism in the United States or as an independent nation. Secession is openly discussed as leverage in order to secure many of the same rights Quebec has won through its own secession movement in the federation of Canada.

Politically, the League of the South defies normal definitions of Left and Right, being further right than Edmund Burke and further left than Karl Marx. Despite this paradox, it may be best characterized as Southern traditionalist, advocating both for greater political and cultural autonomy for the South against the dual onslaught of centralized government and global capitalism. The League proposes to build a new society on a foundation of government centered in communities, accountable to the people, and with an economy of self-sufficient farms and small businesses.

Read the rest of the entry and you will discover it continues in the same vein. An uninformed reader might think that the LOS is a group seeking a bucolic, agrarian future. There are only hints that the LOS seeks to divorce the South from the rest of America so that a white, Christian theocracy can be established. In that new nation women, nonwhites, and non-Christians would be deprived of civil and political rights. Considering that the League is one of the largest hate groups in the country, one would expect a more objective description. Instead, Wikipedia readers are treated to an entry written by Michael Hill, the president of the League of the South.

Wikipedia can be considered an acceptable source for basic information. I would trust it to tell me the difference between Fahrenheit and centigrade or to explain the metric system. But, a reader would be foolish to take a source with no safeguards to prevent bias seriously in regard to complex topics. Nor is the quality of much of the writing at Wikipedia equal to even the eigth-grade education standard of most newspapers. Reasonably priced encyclopedia software is available for both Windows and Macintosh computers. Encyclopedias also offer some access online, as do most mainstream newspapers and magazines. If you care about the accuracy of the information you disseminate, those fact-checked, usually reliable sources should be first among non-equals.

Reasonably related

This entry is not an endorsement of Pajamas Media. I believe it is intended to be another source for disseminating Right Wing opinion on the Internet.

3:30 PM