"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

1.31.2009

weekend this & that

  • We're going to need a new state dinosaur. Luckily, there's one we could use. I hope the Leg attacks this Very Serious Problem asap.
  • Zimbabwe's opposition will join in a coalition government in an effort to improve the desparate situation there. Over 3,000 people have died of cholera in the past few months, and more than 60,000 have been infected.
  • Finally bowing to reality, Zimbabwe has given up on its currency. Mugabe's government will allow commerce to be conducted in foreign currency. Seems like they might've picked up on the point that if you have to print a $100 trillion note, you have a tiny inflation issue. Seven million Zimbabweans are in a state of food insecurity.
  • Rwandan police and army troops attacked protesters in the country's two camps for Congolese refugees. The protesters were angry about the arrest of Laurent Nkunda. Apparently armies pitching their around refugee camps is the new black in refugee protection.
  • Big surprise: the ICG has issued a Conflict Risk Alert for the D.R. Congo.
  • In what could be a huge test case for future claims involving the activities of pharmeceutical companies in sub-Saharan Africa, a U.S. appeals court has ruled that the families of Nigerian children killed during their participation in drug trials by Pfizer can sue for damages in U.S. courts. Pfizer claims that the victims in Nigeria died because of the outbreak of meningitis for which they were testing treatments. It will be very interesting to see what happens with this case. One of the dirty open secrets of the world pharmeceutical manufacturing industry is the running of risky drug trials without solid controls on African subjects. Global pharmeceutical manufacturers have also been known to steal traditional healing methods using plants from African healers without any acknowledgement of their international property rights. I have no idea what the facts of the case are, but it would be nice if it prompted a discussion of a broad problem that takes advantage of uneducated people who may not realize that their health is being put at risk.

1.30.2009

the football equivalent of spain

I couldn't care less about this year's Super Bowl. Pittsburgh and Arizona? Meh. But Stephen Colbert is on top of this year's most pressing problem, the buffalo wing shortage. And his interview with the best lobbyist ever is priceless:

what w hath wrought

Wednesday night I went to a talk hosted by the Robert Strauss Center for International Security & Law here at UT. In additon to being a fun-filled evening of talking about what should be done with all the war on terror detainees at Guantanamo, it was also a taping for C-SPAN.

That's right. I went to a C-SPAN taping. Out-nerd that.

(And there was a Boy Scout troop in attendance. I'm not making that up. Poor kids were bored to tears.)

I enjoyed getting to hear from four very knowledgable experts on the topic at hand. The gist of the evening is that it's going to be an enormous nightmare for the Obama administration to figure out what to do with the people there. It's not as easy as just sending the innocents home and trying the serious terrorism suspects. Most of the innocents still being detained can't return home because they'll be tortured or killed. And some of the seriously bad guys there did things that are clearly harmful, but that weren't technically illegal in the fall of 2001, which complicates criminal prosecution considerably.

As moderator Bobby Chesney and the panelists pointed out, the Obama administration would very much like to have six months to look over the cases, but he predicted that they wouldn't get that long. Chesney was right. In fact, a judge ruled on Thursday that the hearings must continue. Starting in a week and a half.

The gist of the evening was that this is a big mess, it involves questions on the frontier of constitutional and international law, and most precedents are being made up as we go along. I have a feeling that the more we learn about what the Bush administration tried to hide from the public, the worse it's going to get. Oh, and odds are good that some of us are going to have Chinese Uyghur Muslim neighbors pretty soon.

1.29.2009

et tu, betty?

Of all the moronic ideas that prevail in the international, traveling peacekeeping circus (next stop, Darfur!), integrating rebel groups into national armies is among the worst. There's a certain logic to the idea: in places that don't have strong (any) employment prospects for former soldiers, and bringing dissident groups into national institutions gives them a stake in getting everything to work, so we should keep those soldiers employed and give their leaders some authority so they won't rebel again.

It never works that way.

The news that 6,200 CNDP rebels who were, until recently, under the command of Laurent Nkunda, are being integrated into the Congolese army is anything but welcome. There's a slight possibility that they'll bring discipline and order into the ranks. After all, the fact that Nkunda could actually command them is the reason that they almost took Goma last Novemeber, unlike the FARDC forces who fled the front lines. But since the CNDP troops are being integrated into mixed brigades and since the soldiers will now theoretically be paid less than $20 a month by the Congolese army, if their paychecks make it out at all, it's more likely that they'll end up like the rest of the FARDC, dependent on looting and terrorizing the countryside to generate an income.

The bigger problem, however, is that, like most of their compatriots in the FARDC, the CNDP rebels are first class violators of human rights. They are reponsible for rapes, mass killings, looting, burning down villages, burning down refugee camps, using child soldiers, and terrorizing the population.

Their most recent commander, Bosco Ntaganda, has apparently seen the light that he should work with the government and MONUC rather than challenge their authority.

Perhaps this is because Ntaganda is a war criminal. Ntaganda is under an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, and he's done things that are arguably worse than what Nkunda did, including using child soldiers in Ituri in 2002-03 and letting his troops massacre civilians in Kiwanja last year.

Why on earth would the international community (who really calls the shots in the DDR* process) legitimate these people by giving them the uniforms of the national army and handing them weapons? Does anyone really expect that a month in a UN camp will convince CNDP fighters that they should play nice?

Integrating former combatants into national armies is a terrible idea. It's a major reason Congo's army is such a train wreck and that the number of human rights violations committed by FARDC soldiers has skyrocketed in the last few years. Integrating the CNDP is unlikely to improve the situation, and very likely to make things worse for the populations who are unfortunate enough to live near military bases.

*DDR = Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Resettlement, and Reintegration

gag reflex

Late last week, President Obama lifted a Bush administration policy that's known variously as the Mexico City Policy or the Global Gag Rule. The Global Gag Rule actually dates from Reagan, who instituted the policy that any international group that advocates abortion or provides information to women about abortion cannot get funding from the United States. Application of the Global Gag Rule flip flops between Republican and Democratic administrations; George H.W. Bush kept it in place, Clinton repealed it, and George W. Bush reinstated it.

Most pro-life advocates strongly support the Global Gag Rule, on the basis that they would rather not have tax dollars going to support abortion. Never mind that the rule has nothing to do with actually providing abortions; it applies only to providing funds to groups that advocate abortion or provide information about abortion. (There are other restrictions in spending bills about not using tax dollars to provide abortions.)

The problem with the Global Gag Rule is that, as Obama's executive order lifting the ban stated, its restrictions are "excessively broad." Why? Because most countries that get development assistance funding from the U.S. in the health care sector are developing countries. And abortion is illegal under most circumstances in a large number of those countries, especially in Africa. In most cases, abortion is allowed only to save the mother's life. Given the level of prenatal care available in most of sub-Saharan Africa, most women won't know that their lives are in danger from a pregnancy until it's well past the time that abortion would be an option.

There are exceptions to this standard in Africa, and standards are different in Southeast Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Republics, other areas to which we direct funding.

The Global Gag Rule doesn't take a country's policies on abortion into account. Instead, it blocks funding from any organization that supports abortion rights anywhere in the world. That means if Planned Parenthood operates a clinic in rural Uganda that gives advice on family planning and provides prenatal screening, it loses funding when the Global Gag Rule is in effect because of its pro-choice stance on policies in the U.S. This happens regardless of the fact that abortion is illegal in Uganda unless it involves preserving the mother's life or health.

When the Bush administration reinstated the Global Gag Rule in 2001, clinics all over Africa lost all of their funding. In many places, especially in Kenya and Ghana, it meant that tens of thousands of people lost their only access to health care. Period.

Family planning is a touchy subject, particularly with American social conservatives, but I haven't met a single African woman who thinks its a bad idea. You have to imagine what your life would be like if you were a poor woman and you had a baby every year for 10 or 15 years. You can't educate those children, and because you don't get high-quality health care, your body is broken and worn down. Successive pregnancies become more and more risky, and the risk that you'll die and leave your children behind is huge. Most African women just want the same kind of options that women in the U.S. have.

They also need access to pre-natal and peri-natal care, services that in many cases are only provided by groups that lose their funding when the Global Gag Rule is in effect. Many Americans think that Planned Parenthood shouldn't get money for these kinds of activities. But how is it pro-life to prevent mothers and infants from receiving essential medical care?

It's very reasonable for the taxpayers of the United States to expect that their tax dollars won't be used to fund pro-choice groups that are advocating for abortion rights. But taking away funding from a local nurse who is the only trained health care professional serving 20,000 people in a country in which abortion is illegal isn't the solution. And when no one else is there - the Southern Baptist Convention dropped funding for many of its clinics in Africa when its leaders decided to focus on church planting rather than traditional medical missions - the Global Gag Rule contributes not to life, but to the deaths of innocent mothers and their children.

There's a better way to address these issues in a way that keeps everyone happy. Let's hope that sanity prevails over ideology for once.

1.28.2009

this & that

i2a

Over at Inspired to Action, I've posted an interview with Shelton Green, director of What's Your Response?, an organization that works to end human trafficking here in Austin. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 to learn how you can respond to the modern-day slavery that is present in all of our cities and towns.

1.27.2009

bingo

From an Andrew Sullivan reader:

"Obama has been many things in his life, but one of his roles has gotten short shrift. He was a constitutional law professor at one of the best law schools in the country. And there's something about the Bush administration that's gotten short shrift as well. It's not just that there was a political disagreement -- a lot of what the last administration did was illegal. And they didn't just break run of the mill laws -- they broke the central stuff that's laid down in the constitution. Their whole program was rooted in this violation of the constitution -- without that enormous breach, they couldn't have their expansive conception of executive power, upon which so many other things depended.

"I think this point is really key. Bush's conception of the executive isn't something about which reasonable people disagree. It was unconstitutional, and the legal arguments defending it were specious and offered in bad faith. They had as much intellectual integrity as Cheney's assertion that he belonged to neither the executive or legislative branches.

"There's one last building block to my argument: the government is made out of laws. These issues aren't just intellectual pastimes, things that spectators in armchairs engage in once the men of action take care of business. These issues are at the center of everything.

"Without the legal cover that Bush got, none of the awful stuff that transpired could have occurred. Obama has laid down a lot of stuff very quickly, and the effect of it will be to repudiate the entire philosophy of Bush's government. You can see it not only in his executive orders, but in the lawyers he's appointed. He's already changed everything completely.

"I read someone from the left who was concerned that Obama wouldn't close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But he has to -- he's already created a new legal framework in which such a place can't exist. He's put together a team that wouldn't allow him to keep it open. The facility's closure is inevitable. I don't know why more people don't get this.

"Maybe it's because the law hasn't been taken seriously for so long that people don't think what he's done means anything. I don't really know why it's flying under the radar. He's already saved the constitution. I know that sounds way over the top, but I absolutely believe it's true. And as a final related point, this is one area where there is an enormous difference between Obama and Mrs. Clinton. She would not have moved to reestablish the proper constitutional role of the executive. She wouldn't have understood that it's the distortion of that role that's at the center of so many of our problems. Every single thing he's done points to an understanding that Cheney's distorted view of the executive is to blame for so much that's wrong, and there has been no hesitation, no wavering, in his response. He's gone in surgically and attacked it."

in which i become a bit unstable

I am in full dissertation-stress mode and am just about ready to kill the dog whose owner puts it out before the sun rises to bark for 30 minutes every weekday for the last three weeks, thus stealing two hours of precious sleep from the rest of us because who can go back to sleep after that kind of serenade.

(Seriously. If I had a twelve-gauge, city ordinances be darned, that dog would be lying in a shallow grave. I don't care that it's someone's precious little pet and friend anymore. We are not morning people here at Texas in Africa. We work late, and we don't get out of bed before 8am if it can be helped. If the Serious British Earplugs* and a pillow over the head can't drown it out, it doesn't need to be in someone's home, especially when that someone lives in close proximity to thirty other people. You know it's bad when people are yelling, "Put your dog in!" and other, more profane selections out their windows in the pre-dawn hours and you call the office and they say, "The dog?")

Anyway, posting today will be somewhat limited from the looks of it. In the meantime, you can:
*The Serious British Earplugs are the best in the world. Why they stave off the sounds of screaming toddlers on a 10-hour flight to Entebbe but can't handle the bleep-ing dog is beyond me, but I highly recommend them. I stock up at the post-security** Boots in Heathrow every time I'm there.
**I do not recommend stocking up on anything prior to security at Heathrow, as they tend to get picky when you carry things in bulk. Like, say, the medication you need to stay alive while living in the Congo. I actually had to work up tears for the chief of security to get my meds through once because he couldn't understand why one wouldn't pack a long-term supply of medication in one's checked luggage. I avoided the temptation to ask if he'd ever been to an African airport, cried a little, mentioned that that was my flight that was being paged, and sprinted through Terminal 4 to the gate without getting my customary stop at Boots. Thankfully, I still had earplugs left from my prior trip through the airport. Because I am a picky, picky traveler.
***That said, British security screeners are a thousand times more professional, polite, and competent**** than the TSA will ever be.
****With the exception of the women who were not even looking at the x-ray screens at Terminal 4 in January 2006. It reminded me of nothing so much as flying through Athens.

1.26.2009

african farmers

The NYT has a great piece that shows how world market commodity prices directly affect small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, and how having only tenuous access to credit makes any decision to change production a huge risk.

betty watch, day 4

Laurent Nkunda has been in Rwandan custody for four days, but there's still no word on what happened to Betty - or on where exactly he is. Given that Kagame threw his longtime ally under the bus on Friday, I'm going to guess he's in a heavily guarded room at the Kigali Serena Hotel. Kagame owes Nkunda one.

Or not.

In other news, the 3,500 Rwandan troops in the Congo made their way all the way to Lubero, which is 200 kilometers and an eternal drive away from everything, most notably Goma. The Congolese army claims that nine FDLR rebels have been killed.

Nine down, a few thousand to go.

The good news is that Lubero is a heck of a long way away from Goma, so the city should remain calm. The bad news is that Lubero is a heck of a long way from everything except Butembo. There's nowhere good for the displaced to go, and it will be really, really hard to get humanitarian aid to them.

UPDATE: The AP reports that Rwanda says Nkunda is in Rwanda, but "not in jail." My theory about a nice hotel room might not be so far off.

In other news, the Christian Science Monitor quotes someone from Global Witness who says what we're all thinking. Still no word on Betty's whereabouts.

1.25.2009

weekend this & that

1.24.2009

resurrection fern

betty watch 2009

Well, the fate of Congolese rebel Laurent Nkunda's pet goat Betty is still in doubt. Perhaps responsibility for goat management in sub-Saharan Africa should be handed over to a rapid-reaction force of Nigerian police commandos. After all, if they were able to track down and arrest a goat that is using witchcraft to change shapes in order to commit robbery, I'm sure they can figure out where Betty is. Maybe they could help the Rwandans use Betty as a tool to get Nkunda to talk.

In other Congo news, an FDLR leader who's hiding out in Marangara has apparently christened the Rwandan army the "Tutsis of Kagame." That has a certain je ne sais quoi to it, non?

what really went down in aggieland



HT: Euphrony

1.23.2009

the least wonderful time of the year

My course evaluations from the fall semester just arrived. It's always interesting to read what the students had to say, even though I don't put too much stock in evaluations. There's pretty good evidence that evaluation scores correlate very strongly with grades. If a student expects to get an A, she'll give you high marks. Conversely, if a student is failing and knows it, there will be long rants about the UNFAIR GRADING in this course and the cOMPlETELY unREASONABLE PROfeSSOR.

You learn to not worry about it too much.

Anyway, my evaluations from the fall were fine. And I think this may be the highest praise I've ever received:

"...Even better is that I still don't know her political affiliation and that is talent."

It was, of course, followed in the stack by one that said, "This course was well tought."

Sigh.

should've put a ring on it

In an absolutely stunning and bizarre piece of news, Rwandan troops today arrested Congolese Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. There's no word on whether they also picked up Nkunda's pride and joy, his pet goat, Betty.

You know, the U.S. swore in an African-American president this week, so I guess we shouldn't be surprised by anything anymore. But this is off-the-charts wild. Rwanda made Nkunda. He would've been just another two-bit Congolese warlord without the extensive military support he and his CNDP forces received from Kigali. But with Rwanda's help, Nkunda was able to put together a well-disciplined fighting force that could have taken Goma in Novemeber had they so chosen. And now Rwandan troops (who are supposed to be in the Congo for the purpose of hunting down FDLR Hutu rebels) arrest him?!?

It turns out that part of the deal reached between Rwanda and Congo required Rwanda to stop supporting Nkunda, which resulted in the divisions in the CNDP, which subsequently led to Nkunda crossing the border into Rwanda and being arrested. Confused yet? Basically, it turns out that our boy Nkunda probably should've taken Goma while he could. He's supposedly being held in Gisenyi, presumbaly at the prison where all the genocidaires are kept. There's also no word on whether Nkunda gets to wear the same pink pajamas as his fellow prisoners.

Now the Congolese are seeking his extradition to the Congo. They should be pushing for Nkunda to go to The Hague. His troops are responsible (not "allegedly responsible," they are responsible) for murders, rapes, and burning down villages and refugee camps. Nkunda deserves prosecution to the fullest extent of international law.

This is great news, but it won't end the suffering in the eastern Congo by any stretch of the imagination, no matter how triumphant the Enough Project's press release will be later today. There is still no decision on what to do about the citizenship rights of Congolese Tutsis, nor about the massive mess of land claims that are still unsettled in North Kivu. Unless these problems are solved quickly -which is nearly impossible - another Nkunda will come along. It's just a matter of time.

*Thanks to Amanda and Kate over at Wronging Rights for the shout-out!

friday this & that

1.22.2009

quelle horreur!

This is the best headline I've seen in a long, long time.

gitmo closes

President Obama has ordered that the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay be closed within the next year. He also - and perhaps more importantly - ordered that the CIA can only use interrogation methods that are in the Army Field Manual and outlawed the use of secret U.S. prisons in other countries.

This is a huge step on the road to rebuilding America's reputation, and, more importantly, to seeing that the people who've been held without trial get justice. A year is a reasonable amount of time to get it all sorted out, especially with respect to the sticky problem of resettling innocent prisoners in new countries. Portugal and Australia have offered to take some; Switzerland yesterday said they would take prisoners if it was necessary for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Don't get me wrong; some of these people have done or planned to do terrible things. But others are completely innocent and, both types of prisoners have been held without even being charged with crimes. That's not America. That's not what our Constitution is about. That Obama is trying to undo so much of the damage George W. Bush did to our national reputation and to the Constitutional protections of habeas corpus in his first days in office is a very, very good sign.

and hope and history rhyme...

My feelings about Vice-President Joseph Biden are fairly well known around here, I believe. Although he's certainly better than his predecessor (And thank-you, Tom Brokaw, for callin' it like you saw it. Dr. Strangelove he is.), we here at Texas in Africa are Not Fans of the Biden. This all dates to our experiences many years ago as a summer intern for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, during which then-Senator Biden assumed the chairmanship and our hearings doubled in length overnight because Mr. Chairman is incapable of filtering every thought that comes into his head that the new Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia might need to know.

Tuesday night, however, Biden did something that may cause me to reconsider. I was up late, watching the coverage of the inaugural balls, simmering with jealousy that T was flirting with John Cusack while I was answering undergraduate emails (Why, no, the presentation that counts for 5% of your grade is not extra credit, darling.), when Joe stepped up to the mike at the Mid-Atlantic ball. And quoted Seamus Heaney. From The Cure at Troy, to be specific.

Stinkin' Joe Biden! I love that poem. And I love Seamus Heaney. He's an Irish poet; I got to hear him read from his gorgeous translation of Beowulf at Yale. (It being Yale (motto: Anything Harvard can do, we can do better.), of course, there was a scholar of middle English who read the original with him. It was the most amazing responsive reading I've ever heard.) He speaks like he writes and he writes pure poetry, plain and simple. And Biden quoted it from memory, after midnight.

Here's a little more. Biden recited the second stanza of what's below, but to really understand it, you need the context. The poem is an interpretation of Sophocles' play Philoctetes. Philoctetes sailed for Troy with Odysseas, but was abandoned on an island after he was bitten by a snake on the journey, but the Greeks learn that they can't win against Troy unless they get Hercules' bow, which is with Philoctetes. This part is sung by the chorus at the very end, after Philoctetes has asked the chorus for a weapon with which he can kill himself. This is their response, and after they say this, Philoctetes says he sees Hercules' face. I love the line about the "far side of revenge." And I love the poem:

"Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing,
The utter self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
And lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is listening
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
and hope and history rhyme."

-Seamus Heaney, excerpt from The Cure at Troy (1990)

music for thursday

The Librarian posted U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" to mark MLK Day on Monday. It's a great song, and I particularly love this version by South Africa's Soweto Gospel Choir:

1.21.2009

morning in America

Barack Obama has only been president for a day (or two hours, if you're a FOX News lover), and already things are getting better. Not only did the son of the most diverse family in presidential history take the oath of office once again, just to be sure, but Gitmo is well on the way to closing, lobbyists won't get to run the show at the White House, and HE HAS OPENED THE ARCHIVES AGAIN.

Unless you do research for a living, you have no idea what a pain the Bush administration was when it came to freedom of information. They closed records that had previously been open (Seriously. In 2003, I could photocopy documents about U.S. activity in Tanzania in the 1960's, but in 2004, many of those documents had been reclassified and therefore pulled from the files. Never mind that the copies were still sitting in my office.) and kept scholars from getting access to new documents that should have been opened according to the thirty year rule. Why would they do that, you might ask? Well, whose presidency began almost thirty years ago? That should explain it. The Bushies didn't think that scholars should, you know, actually have access to real information about the administration of St. Reagan.

Glory be. Obama's people aren't afraid of transparency. It's a whole new day for those of us who need access to this stuff to do what we do.

In other news from the new era, al-Qaeda's being taken out by the plague (I am not making this up.), I now have a near-perfect example for my "Wikipedia is Not a Valid Source of Information" lecture/rant, there's a super-cool mosaic of the inauguration at the WaPo, Obama has a larger vocabulary than W (thanks, Ben), and The Baylor Lariat actually printed the words "Gay Men's Chorus of Washington" in a story about the Lobbyist.

The times, they are 'a changing.

potential

This, kids, is an example of very effective interest group messaging:

wednesday this & that

  • President Obama (oh, that sounds SO good!) has ordered the suspension of all military tribunals at Guantanamo, which seems like a good idea given that so many of the prosecutors have quit on the grounds that participation in them would be unethical since they seem to be rigged against terror suspects. This is the first step towards closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, resettling those prisoners who were held without just cause, and beginning fair trials for those who really were engaged in terrorism.
  • Rwandan troops entered North Kivu yesterday under an agreement with Kinshasa to help rout out the remaining FDLR Hutu militia members. theoretically they are under Congolese command, although we all know about how effective that is. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that they're headed up to Rutshuru to see their friend Laurent Nkunda.
  • And it's also a coincidence, of course, that humanitarian aid workers and MONUC troops aren't being allowed into the area where the Rwandan troops are staging their operation. Nothing will win hearts and minds like letting Rutshuru starve, Kigali.
  • I want to travel on multiple passports.
  • T met Ben Affleck AND John Cusak at the Google Ball last night. Sigh.

halt!

This, gang, is huge.

1.20.2009

for all americans

Here's who came to the inauguration: a drum corps of boys on whom everyone else has given up. A daughter carrying a receipt from the poll tax her father had to pay to vote in Alabama. Countless pictures of ancestors who were never allowed to vote, who never could've imagined that America would vote for a black man.

the place just right

This was, without question, the best part of today's inaugural. The fact that most of our founders would've fallen over to learn that an African-American, an Asian-American, a Jew, and a woman would play an old Shaker song there made it even better:

the price & promise of citizenship

I ran into a former student this afternoon. He called from down the hall as I was headed to my office. "Professor, Professor! Did you watch?"

He's the son of African immigrants, thoroughly Americanized, an athlete, and very popular on this small campus. He's also smart as a whip.

"Do you remember when I was in your class?" he asked. "It didn't even seem like he'd get to run."

This American Life ran a remarkable show on Sunday. They just let people talk, about Obama, abou their hopes and fears for the new administration. They listened to African-Americans on the southside of Chicago. They listened to residents of rural Appalachia, some of whom live in towns where everybody is white. There's a little of that in today's media coverage; check out these words of the crowd in Anacostia, a D.C. neighborhood whose residents live in the shadow of the capitol, but whose voices are never heard in the halls of power.

Abraham Lincoln's famous conclusion to the Gettysburg Address is often misread. It's not the words that people get wrong, it's the enunciation. Notes from the speech tell us that Lincoln put the emphasis on the word "people" in the speech, not on the "of," "by," and "for," as we so often hear it. Lincoln wanted to make his point that we live under a form of rule that is supposed to be about its citizens. It's government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It belongs to us. We have a responsibility to maintain it. And it exists to serve us.

Days like today are reminders of what makes this country so amazing. Every now and then, we get these small reminders that this country is all of us. And lest we forget, it is an incredible privilege to live in a place in which transitions to power are peaceful. We don't have to worry that there will be riots in the streets tonight. We don't have to wait for a coup or a war to bring a change in regime. We get to vote, we get to decide, and then everyone plays by the rules and lets the other side take over.

There are no words to describe the momentousness of this day. I thought Elizabeth Alexander's poem was beautiful, but even she could not capture it fully. Only that fantastic arrangement of "Simple Gifts" even came close.

But deep down, I think I know at least part of what it means. I know what it means to my students, present, past, and future. I know what it means to my friends in Western Kenya and the eastern Congo. And I know what it means to me.

inaugural fun

A few things you may not know about the inauguration:
  • According to the Constitution, the changeover to the presidency happens at 12:01pm on January 20. It doesn't matter that Obama took the oath of office a few minutes late; he became president at 12:01. At that point, the Secret Service agent who shadows the president switches from one to the other.
  • "So help me God" is not part of the Constitutional oath of office, and it wasn't said until the 1885 inaugural of Chester A. Arthur. There's currently a court case arguing that the chief justice and president do something unconstitutional in taking the oath of office.
  • You weren't invited to the luncheon in Statuary Hall.

don't let the door...

I can think of no better way to celebrate the fact that, as of 12:01pm today, George W. Bush will no longer be president of the United States of America than with this gem from the very fabulous Turtle Creek Chorale:

1.19.2009

could be worse


All presidents see a decline in popularity and job approval ratings as their time in office progresses. The combination of failed policies, campaign promises unmet, and sheer boredom means that no president is able to sustain high approval ratings for long. We call it the Decay Curve. The interesting thing is that most presidents enjoy a bump in popularity towards the end of their terms, especially in the last six months or so. Voters get nostaligc and remember why they voted for the guy in the first place, or they look at their new choices and sigh with dismay. So the president usually rides out with a decent level of popularity.

This has not happened for George W. Bush.

Poor W. Sometimes it seems like he doesn't have a friend in the world. His approval ratings as he leaves office are at 22% according to some polls. It will take decades to fully dissect what went wrong, although the pundits in full force to attempt to explain his follies. He sees everything in black-and-white, which is fine for moralizing, but which doesn't work well in national security and economic policy. He relies on "purity of intention" rather than empirical reality. He's not smart, or he is smart and fooled us all into implementing a neo-con dream.

That he seems to be incapable of admitting his mistakes is the most infuriating thing about George W. Bush. His reflections on his term in office thus far tend to place the blame on outside events rather than his decisions. I wonder if he realizes how much would have been forgiven if he'd just owned up to having made a mistake or two. Or if he understands, as David Broder so eloquently puts it, that America needed to be asked to sacrifice rather than shop in the days after 9/11.

And then there's the whole fact that he and members of his administration launched an assault on civil liberties, started an unnecessary war that has killed thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, ruined our relationships with historic allies, politicized everything from the Department of Justice to the Environmental Protection Agency, made it easier for businesses to pollute, took away all access to health care from millions of poor people by defunding clinics that had any association with Planned Parenthood (which had very little to do with abortion in reality, given that abortion is illegal in the vast majority of the countries in question), allowed New Orleans to drown, and decided that the confiscation of hand lotion from little old ladies is an effective airport counterterrorism strategy. Oh, and he ignored intelligence that should have tipped us off to 9/11, which means that he did not keep us safe from terrorist attacks.

I could go on.

That said, I don't believe George W. Bush is the worst president in American history. But before I can explain why, we have to talk about how presidents are evaluated. As I teach my students, determining whether a presidency was successful is complicated. Judging on the basis of whether you liked his policies or not isn't a valid measure, since we all have different opinions about the best solution to a problem. You can evaluate a president on whether he achieved what he set out to achieve. But this is problematic as well, because we know that, on average, presidents fail to secure their major legislative agendas about 65% of the time. Presidents have to contend with 535 egocentric members of Congress, all of whom have their own ideas about what to do. This is the genius of our political system. By design, presidents can't fulfill all their campaign promises.

You can judge presidents on the basis of their popularity. But that doesn't really give us a good measure of whether they'll be viewed as a good or bad (or successful or unsuccessful) president in a hundred years. Lincoln had a tough re-election campaign in 1864 when the war wasn't going so well for the Union. Truman was a laughingstock by the end of his term in office, even though he is now viewed very favorably. Adams didn't get along with anybody. (Perhaps having David McCullough write your biography is a good way to restore your presidential reputation.) The American public is fickle, and popularity isn't always a reliable measure of success.

You can also judge presidents on the basis of what they do to the institution of the presidency, and how their legacy affects the country as a whole. I tend to rely on this measure while taking the others into account.

So, why don't I think George W. Bush is the worst president we've ever had? Mainly because there are others who did much worse things to the country, things from which recovery either never happened or took 20 years.

Who was worse? James Buchanan, for one. The man's inability to accomplish anything led the country to the Civil War. There is nothing worse a president can do than to preside over a situation in which his countrymen turn against one another. Nothing. Some parts of our country still haven't fully recovered from the effects of this war, and it's doubtful they ever will.

Miserable as our current economic situation may be, it's nothing compared to the Great Depression. While Herbert Hoover could not have controlled all the rampant speculation and greed that drove the crisis, he certainly could have taken a more active stance once the crisis made itself apparent. Instead, Hoover failed politically to stem the crisis. New Deal niceties aside, it took World War II to really restart the economy, at a huge cost in blood and treasure.

Nixon had the misfortune of being corrupt at the same time as Vietnam. The war and the Watergate Crisis broke the confidence of the American people in their government. We as a group have never regained that trust, or the belief that our voices matter in running this country.

Then there are all the low achievers (Harrison, Taylor, Tyler, Fillmore), and the ones who were brought into office by corrupt political machines (Arthur, Truman) and the guys who started unnecessary or questionably justified wars (Polk, McKinley).

Bush did a lot of horrible things as president. He damaged the institution and the country's reputation. But much of the damage is reversible. Many of George W. Bush's mistakes will be undone in the next month as Obama signs executive orders that reverse Bush's policies. Our allies are thrilled that Obama was elected, and we'll be rejoining the international community by signing treaties and playing nice in short order. There are things that will take time to repair, but I believe we'll move past them. The war in Iraq will have far-reaching conseqences at home (including with respect to the generation of PTSD-affected soldiers coming home to inadequate VA mental healthcare) and abroad (because goodness knows it's done little to stabilize the Middle East or to improve our relations with Iran). But I think there's a strong case that others were worse, especially with respect to their long-term effects on the institution.

I will give Bush credit for one thing: he did more than any other president (especially his immediate predecessor) to help fight HIV/AIDS, particularly in Africa. I've met people who are alive only because of his commitment to providing anti-retroviral therapy. That will be his legacy, and he should dedicate his remaining years to working on the issue. To do so would go far in restoring his reputation. Wouldn't it be ironic if Bush were to experience a Carteresque redemption in the eyes of the public?

At any rate, the republic survived the presidency of George W. Bush. Our founders were wise; they created a system that limited power even when those in power do all they can to dismantle the rule of law. We are fortunate, indeed.

mlk day service

I have a new post up over at Inspired to Action today. Check out some suggestions for ways to serve your community on MLK Day.

sweet land of liberty



The dedication ceremony for the Lincoln Memorial was segregated.

It was 1922, and Dr. Robert R. Moton, then president of the Tuskegee Institute, was an invited speaker.

He was only invited to speak to blacks in attendance at the ceremony, all of whom were seated on the opposite side of a road from the main platform in front of the memorial.

In 1939, Marian Anderson, a woman from Philadelphia with a beautiful contralto voice, was denied the privilege of singing at the Constitution Hall by the good Daughters of the American Revolution. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and suggested that Anderson perform her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. She did, on Easter Sunday.

The first song she sang was "My Country 'Tis of Thee."

Martin Luther King, Jr. would invoke Anderson's song less than thirty years later in his "I Have a Dream" speech, calling for "the day when all God's children will be able to sing [it] with new meaning."

The Obama transition team is determined to present him as the Lincoln to George W. Bush's Buchannan, and with regards to the media presence, they've succeeded. Comparisons of the two men from Illinois are everywhere right now.

Sunday afternoon I skipped out on a beautiful springtime (in January) day to watch the opening event of the Obama inaugural festivities, a concert called We Are One that was held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I mainly watched because my friend, the Lobbyist for the Dark Side (who is actually no longer a lobbyist, but that's another topic), is a member of a chorus that sang in the program.

They had thought earlier this week that they would be backing James Taylor, but it turned out that the chorus was assigned to sing with Josh Groban and Heather Headley. They sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee," in tribute to Marian Anderson.

The Lobbyist is a member of the Gay Mens' Chorus of Washington.

Someone with a sense of history and humor planned that one, no doubt.

It could not have been more appropriate. Because that is, in so many ways, the story of this country. It's a story of figuring out that a country built on liberty and equality doesn't get to say that some people are better than others. We don't get to exclude performers from our concert halls because of the color of their skin. We don't separate people who are different from one another just so we can all be comfortable and pretend that the others aren't there. We don't have to have arrived on the first boats from England to get to be elected president. And even if - especially if - our religion teaches that someone else's orientation or lifestyle is wrong, we still don't get to exclude those people from the rights and privileges the rest of us enjoy. The blessings of liberty are secured for all of us.

Lincoln will be invoked many, many more times in the next few days as the inauguration progresses, probably inappropriately from time to time. Lincoln was far from the perfect saint history has made him out to be. We forget, for example, that the Emancipation Proclamation was largely about sticking it to the south. It didn't even free the slaves in Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, or areas of the Confederacy that were under Union control at the time. If you were a slave in New Orleans, you remained a slave until the war ended and the 13th Amendment passed.

Like our country, it took Lincoln a long time to get there. He was an ordinary man and a politician, not a saint. You can see him puzzle it out, wondering in the Second Inaugural if the terrible war is God's punishment for two sides that pray to the same God for our complicity about slavery. He knows slavery is evil, but the demands of politics are like shackles on the wrists of those who want to do good.

But he did get there. And we'll get there, step by step by step. Sometimes it's painful; sometimes the heroes, like the one we honor today, die. But this country which is, as Lincoln said, "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," grows a little more each time.

Let freedom ring.

our thoughts today

1.18.2009

quite the week

It's been quite a week for friends of Texas in Africa in the media. First, our friend the Security Expert appeared standing over the governor's shoulder in the press conference about that plane crash in the Hudson River. Then, we found out that one of those guys standing on the wings of the plane was a summer camp friend's husband (Yikes!). And today, the Lobbyist for the Dark Side was part of the We Are One inaugural concert, about which more will be said tomorrow.

Now T & E are in the Washington Post, with their very informative insights on speedy inauguration travel in DC. How cool is that?

sunday this & that

"this is hard"

1.17.2009

should'a paid attention in tenth grade

Why is Obama such a stirring speaker? Iambic pentameter, baby.

1.16.2009

it's over

The changeover to the Obama administration officially happens at 12:01pm Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday, but the effective end of the Bush administration happens in just a few minutes, at 9pm tonight, when all but three of the highest-level White House staff members turn in their credentials and leave. Here's the play-by-play on what happens after that.

I'll have more on the end of the Bush presidency early next week, including an argument as to why it's a bit much to be calling him the worst president in American history. (Hint: Did he oversee the division of the republic in half or stage what amounted to a direct and deliberate genocide? No. Then he's not the worst.) For now, enjoy the holiday weekend, read a heartwarming story or two, and know that the republic is stronger than one bad presidency.

1.15.2009

unspeakable crimes

Aaron Weaver over at BDW has a post today on Baylor law professor Mark Osler's upcoming book, Jesus on Death Row. It sounds like a very interesting meditation on the mind-boggling flaws in the criminal justice system that lead to wrongful convictions.

I live in a state in which the criminal justice system is so broken that at least thirty-seven men were convicted and served a total of 525 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. They've only been exonerated in the last ten years or so since DNA testing technology has become more available. Nineteen of those cases came out of Dallas County.

While there is nothing that can be done to reverse the travesties that landed these completely innocent people in a living nightmare in the first place, our state could do much, MUCH more to ensure that this stops happening. We could adequately fund our public defenders' offices, so that poor defendants get adequate legal representation from well-trained lawyers who have managable case loads. We can also support the Innocence Project of Texas, which works to get wrongfully convicted prisoners out of jail, mainly through the dedication of law students at Texas Tech.

And we could remember that "doing justice" is a direct Biblical command. In a state in which politicians spend so much time pontificating about Jesus, it would be nice to see someone stand up for the principle that justice really should be for all, not just for those who can afford it.

opening day

Tuesday was the first day of classes at Private Christian U, but I had enough time before class to head down to the Legislature for kickoff, I mean, the opening session. It's my last spring in Texas for awhile, and certainly the last time I'll be around for the 140 days in an odd numbered year in which nothing in our state is safe for quite some time.

Those of you fortunate enough not to follow Texas politics may not know that we've had a little drama around here of late. Tom Craddick, a far-right Republican who ruled with a "my way or the highway" iron fist, was effectively deposed as Speaker of the House by a coalition of moderate Republicans and all Democrats in a series of backroom negotiations last week when they chose moderate San Antonio Republican Joe Straus as Speaker. By the opening of the session at noon on Tuesday, all of Straus' challengers had dropped out, so the House side was all formalities and underhanded digs at Craddick's style.



So many people were happy about this that there was a long line to get into the House gallery. I was behind a new empty-nester who's decided to give two hours a week to learning about what's going on in her state. Behind us was an older Hispanic man from San Antonio, there to see his son-in-law sworn in as a Representative. Behind him was Joe Straus' seventh grade social studies teacher, then some interns, lobbyists from Beaumont, everyone you can imagine. Inside the packed chamber were Texans of every stripe. Even the nominating speeches reflected Texas - women spoke, Democrats spoke, Hispanic legislators spoke. Our government looked, for once, like Texas.

It was amazing. People were happy. I don't think I'd realized how truly awful things were under Craddick. And while I firmly believe that Texas government will be a mess no matter who's in charge, we are much better off with someone who'll govern from the center and who will, as one of the speakers put it (and I'm paraphrasing broadly here), allow bills to be judged on the basis of their merits, not on the Speaker's/the people who bought and paid for the Speaker's personal political preferences. It may not last, and goodness knows Dan Patrick is doing his best to destroy civility on the Senate side, but it's nice to be hopeful for once.

1.14.2009

african of the year

I'm very pleased to learn that Nigeria's Daily Trust newspaper has named Congolese Dr. Denis Mukwege as African of the Year. Dr. Mukwege is the Chief of Medicine at the Panzi Hospital of Bukavu, a hospital on Bukavu's eastern side that primarily serves women and girls who are victims of violent rape.

Interviewing Dr. Mukwege was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. He and his staff work all the time to fight the rising tide of sexual violence in the Kivus. They see the absolute worst things that human beings do to one another, but they keep working in the knowledge that they can save women, one by one.

Mukwege will use the $20,000 prize for a center that will help reintegrate his patients back into Congolese society. This honor is very well-deserved.

this & that

1.13.2009

congolese rebel watch

Are they dividing or aren't they? My general rule for life and work in the Congo is that if Jason Starnes is worried about it, it's serious. He sounds concerned about the potential ramifications, but I don't think it's time to panic yet.

In other news, my favorite Congolese rebel/politician Jean-Pierre Bemba's war crimes confirmation of charges began at The Hague today. That's one down. If they ever get around to prosecuting every other major Congolese politician/warlord whose election campaign t-shirts I possess, we might get an actual peace deal.

I won't be holding my breath.

1.12.2009

adventures in oz


Then we went to Australia for New Year's. I was sick most of the time we were there, but my general impression is that 1) the Great Barrier Reef is amazing, and 2) Sydney is one of the coolest cities anywhere. Also, I love summer and a tan in January.

The Great Barrier Reef

Water at the Great Barrier Reef

Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Sydney Opera House, which is amazing inside and out:





statistically speaking

Here's an interesting visual guide as to what happened under the Bush presidency. Check out the personal savings rate.

1.11.2009

just like lord of the rings


(10 points to whomever catches the reference in the title of this post.) We went to New Zealand for Christmas. It's spectacularly beautiful. And there are lots of sheep. Click on any picture to enlarge.

Sailing on Auckland Harbor:

I saw Lord of the Rings on a plane once, but I accidentally watched it out-of-order, so I don't know what anything is. This is something from the movie involving Gandalf walking in hills?

Milford Sound, which is actually a fjord. It's hard to explain how remote and steep those walls are. As one of our guidebooks said, it feels like the bottom of the world.

Seals in the Milford Sound. They are one of two species of mammal that are native to New Zealand.

These are lupines, a cousin of the Texas bluebonnet. They are considered to be weeds.

You can't get dinner from most restaurants on Christmas Day, but you can get delivery from Hell. Pizza. We did not order the "Mordor."

A glacier on Mt. Cook, the highest peak (12,225 or so feet) in New Zealand

A nice view from the helicopter at Mt. Cook

Lupines and glacial water at Lake Tekapo

Braided river systems run multiple channels in one riverbed. They're unique to New Zealand, British Columbia, and a couple of other places in the world.

Unreal colors near the Canterbury Plain

In what may be the highlight of my life this far, we got to see a Bollywood film being made while we waited for our turn to punt upon the Avon River in Christchurch. The only thing that could've made it better would have been for two hundred Indians to start singing and dancing in the middle of the street.

Christchurch Cathedral

1.10.2009

weekend this & that

  • Here's a very interesting story about the challenges immigrant parents face in trying to instill their traditional cultural values in their children.
  • Congratulations, Florida. Your football players have the widest gap between their SAT scores and those of the university's average students of any school in the country.
  • Here's a profile of new Congressman Tom Perriello.
  • What are Facebook friends worth? About 37 cents. In beef.

1.09.2009

that life that is contagious



This is a wildly inappropriate, yet fantastic, song about remembering being young and stupid.

1.08.2009

back to the topics at hand

  • Via Chris Blattman's blog (which is, by the way, great for those of us interested in African political economy and conflict issues), Obama in Kenya is the most awesome Africa-based blog I've seen. Now I need to get to Nairobi to find a "Relax, Obama is in control" t-shirt.
  • A former colleague and I are starting a blog on genocide and ethnic cleansing around the world. It will be as much of an upper as you might guess, but it won't be nearly as funny as Wronging Rights, which has excellent coverage of this week's events involving infighting Congolese rebels. Congolese rebel groups divide like Oklahoma chokes in the BCS - all the time.
  • None of this deterred Rwanda's army chief-of-staff from visiting Kinshasa for talks with M. Kabila this week. That's because Kinshasa's like a whole 'nother country from the east.
  • Texas Governor Goodhair's pet lobbyist-driven project, the Trans-Texas Corridor, is dead. Craddick's out and no more TTC? We must be prayed up.
  • However, the idea that we still really need I-69 from Texarkana to the Valley is still a bad one. What will it take to get the people who govern this state to realize that the future is not in single-occupancy vehicles?
  • Just before I left for the holidays, Theoneste Bagasora was convicted for his role in planning the 1994 Rwandan genocide. This is long-overdue justice for a man who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
  • While we were out, Ethiopia passed a law that basically makes it illegal for international NGO's (and local organizations that receive more than 10% of their funding from international donors) to engage in any kind of political debate or advocacy with the state, as well as work to promote equality, human rights, or conflict resolution. It's a piece of work. The government of Ethiopia is authoritarian, and they want to control all aid dollars that flow into their country. Since they're also highly corrupt, wise international agencies direct their funding elsewhere, and foreign governments direct funding to private groups that promote the ideals the Ethiopian government hates. This will be very bad for the Ethiopian people, whose governments have varied widely across the decades in outlook and philosophy, except in their lack of concern for the well-being of the population.

my word

Way to go, DOD.

ew ew ew

This was supposed to be a post of vacation photos. Really.

But when you've been traveling for nine weeks straight, and the last two and a half of those weeks you've been on the other side of the country/world, and Southwest still can't manage to get their planes in the air within an hour of scheduled takeoff, and you're jet-lagged beyond belief and have to make a Major Life Decision in the next week or so, the last thing you want to come home to is the smell of rotting meat.

It seems that While We Were Out, the fridge died. That would be the fridge we complained about a year ago because it leaked droplets of water from the freezer, creating a nice little line of mold spots under the door every week. That would be the fridge that maintenance put in a request to replace over a year ago, but that did not get replaced because the property owners were going to sell, but then they changed their mind and hired all new flitty, incompetent staff who can't seem to cash my rent check, much less handle something as complicated as a broken refrigerator.

Gagging at all the mold while throwing away several hundred dollars' worth of frozen food was a super way to end the vacation, let me tell you. At least the maintenance staff is competent. I currently have a new temporary refrigerator and will have a brand new one in a few days.

I would've been happy with the removal of the stinky old one.

I hope your Thursday is off to a better start than mine.