November 4, 2007

Hugo’s ‘Socialist’ Folly

Venezuela’s economic controls make the rich, richer – and poor, poorer

By David Paulin

Months into his presidency, Hugo Chavez tested the patience of Venezuelans with his frequent weeknight television addresses. Long and rambling, the impromptu talks provoked a common gripe that Venezuela’s press soon reported on: People were missing their favorite telenovelas.

Venezuelans rebelled after ten months.

Minutes after Chavez began yet another address, they went to their windows holding kitchen spoons and pots. In a traditional Venezuelan protest, they banged them furiously as Chavez recounted his first 300 days in office. The first such protest against El Presidente occurred amid a paralyzed economy and record-low oil prices.

From my apartment in eastern Caracas, the pot-banging protest was so loud that, when I phoned fellow journalists, they could clearly hear the clanging over the telephone receiver I held out the window. Like a slow-moving grass fire, the protest in early December, 1999, spread from one apartment building and city block to another, mainly in middle and lower-middle class areas. Some TV reports showed people in slum areas engaging in the protest, apparently upset over soaring crime.

People were growing impatient. Chavez had won a landslide election because Venezuelans from all socio-economic classes – and not merely the poor, as is so often claimed – trusted the anti-establishment figure to clean up corruption and reduce declining living standards in the oil-rich but impoverished South American nation. But Chavez had yet to undertake meaningful democratic reforms.

Chavez no longer commands the popularity he did. Massive street protests are common. But whether they’re for Chavez or against him, Venezuelans over the past four years have furtively engaged in another kind of protest, one that has attracted much less media attention than massive street demonstrations. Whenever they can, they’re circumventing two of the cornerstones of Chavez’s command-and-control economy – draconian currency exchange and price controls.

The controls underscore an old joke about socialist states: they offer socialism for the masses, and capitalism for the classes. Like Cuba’s dollar-based tourism economy, Venezuela’s has a parallel economy because of the controls. Rather than delivering Bolivarian social justice, they’re making the rich, richer – and poor, poorer. They’re also producing “periodic” food shortages that mainly affect the poor.

Nearly four years ago, a crippling three-month oil worker strike prompted Chavez to introduce the controls to stop capital flight. Price controls were put on some 400 items to combat soaring inflation, now the highest in Latin America at 16 percent. As in the past, record-high oil prices have driven inflation, thanks to a flood of petro-dollars that has produced a government and consumer spending spree.

Like earlier Venezuelan leaders who implemented similar controls, Chavez has been bedeviled be a force more powerful than his edicts – the market. The economic controls have widened the gap between government-regulated prices and the cost of getting goods to consumers; and hence the periodic food shortages.

In typical leftist fashion, Chavez has blamed the food shortages on the usual scapegoats – “speculators” and “hoarders.” Retailers, however, answer to Adam Smith, not the utopian Marxist ideals that enthrall Chavez. They must sell at a profit, not a loss.

For their part, well-off Venezuelans find ways around the shortages, either buying goods on the black market or from retailers who discretely sell above regulated prices. That’s not the case with the poor.

Just ask Ana Diaz, a 70-year-old housewife, who recently discovered that Chavez’s famous food markets – which sell at below-market prices – are not immune from market forces. "They say there are no shortages, but I'm not finding anything in the stores," she told an Associated Press reporter last February. Nor is Bolivarian socialism very customer-oriented. Diaz said she waited in line for eight hours – all for a bag of chicken, milk, vegetable oil and sugar.

The article’s headline announced: “Meat, Sugar Scarce in Venezuela Stores.”

According to its opening paragraph:

“Meat cuts vanished from Venezuelan supermarkets this week, leaving only unsavory bits like chicken feet, while costly artificial sweeteners have increasingly replaced sugar, and many staples sell far above government-fixed prices.”

Chavez is not the first Venezuelan president to undertake price and exchange controls. His predecessor, Rafael Caldera, implemented similarly draconian exchange and price controls in an effort to halt falling living standards. But amid an increasingly deteriorating economy and record-low oil prices, Caldera eventually saw the light. Going against his populists and leftist ideological instincts, he inaugurated a series of painful economic reforms backed by the International Monitory Fund.

When reporting on Caldera’s about face, I wrote the kind of story editors want – one describing the short-term pain felt by ordinary people thanks to Caldera’s IMF-backed reforms. “Things are tough. We're eating less meat and lots more pasta, rice and beans,” I quoted Dila Ferreira, a 57-year-old maid, as saying in articles published in several major newspaper. Her comment was reflected by marketing surveys showing that low-income Venezuelans were indeed changing their eating habits.

I wonder how Ferreira is doing today. Under Caldera’s painful free-market reforms, she was eating less meat. Now, she may not be eating any meat at all.

Chavez claims his anti-poverty programs have reduced Venezuela’s poverty rate. But poverty experts say they are not serious programs that will produce lasting changes, and their impact has been marginal at best.

Ironically, the market has probably produced greater reductions in poverty than Bolivarian socialism and earlier anti-poverty programs. Traditionally, Venezuela has seen poverty decrease during earlier oil booms. In the oil-based economy, the market’s trickle-down effect tended to lift everyone’s boat in spite of Venezuela having some of the world’s worst corruption and inept governance. By all accounts, these scourges have soared to epic levels under Chavez.

A Party for the rich

Despite Chavez’s socialist pretensions, the go-go days of “Saudi Venezuela” – as Venezuela was called in the 1970s – have returned. The rich and merely well off are having a party, which is reflected in a surge of bourgeoisie imports such as expensive whiskey, high demand for plastic surgery, and an overseas travel binge.

Sales of expensive cars are booming, too, just as during the Caldera’s era of soaring inflation and economic controls. Unable to buy U.S. dollars as a hedge against soaring inflation, people instead buy durable goods such as cars.

Living hand to mouth, the poor have no such options in the face of accumulated inflation that has soared past 80 percent the past four years. And they’ll soon suffer more when Chavez devalues the currency, as he’s poised to do, to pay for his spending spree at home and abroad. The bolivar’s official rate is 2,150 to $1, but on the black market a dollar is worth twice that amount.

Chavez’s Bolivarian socialism and exchange controls are making for odd bedfellows, too. They controls are frightening off potential investors, hindering the repatriation of profits, and impeding local businesses that depend on imports. The constantly complain about an inability to obtain an adequate supply of dollars.

Corruption under the controls is another problem. Under Chavez and previous administrations that implemented exchange controls, officials have regularly been accused of accepting bribes to authorize or speed up requests to buy dollars.

Ironically, the controls are producing handsome profits on the Caracas Stock Exchange, the workplace of some of those “oligarchs” whom Chavez so often vilifies. Companies have been utilizing the stock exchange’s dollar-denominated bond market to meet their need for dollars.

The controls are not the only example of Bolivarian socialism’s contradictions. After a hard day at the office, those bond traders can fill up their Hummers for about $1.50. Catering to the notion that cheap gasoline is a Venezuelan birthright, Chavez’s administration, like earlier ones, spends billions of dollars to sell gasoline at unprofitable prices, about 7 cents per gallon. The gasoline subsidy exceeds what Chavez spends on his social programs, say economists.

When writing about the exchange controls during Caldera’s era, I also noted they were proving to be a boon for Colombian counterfeiting gangs. They were doing a brisk business selling fake U.S. $100 greenbacks to unsuspecting Venezuelans.

In the scramble to obtain dollars, the real wheeling and dealing occurs on the black market. Some Venezuelans have been buying U.S. dollars at the official rate, claiming they need them for a trip. Then they sell them on the black market for twice their value.

Recently, Bloomberg described one scheme:

“Some Venezuelans travel to nearby Curaçao, where they buy $5,000 of casino poker chips with their credit cards, exchange the chips for cash and then sell the dollars on the black market back in Caracas.”

Chavez has vowed to crack down on such schemes. But he’s unlikely to eliminate untold numbers of less conspicuous black market transactions involving willing buyers and sellers.

During Caldera’s exchange controls, I regularly visited a good-natured Spaniard who had a retail outlet that depended on U.S. imports. I wrote him checks from a Miami bank, which he then sent to his U.S. bank. He gladly paid me a good black market rate. I was one popular gringo. They were good days for people who earned decent salaries and got paid in U.S. dollars.

Under Chavez, those days are back with a vengeance. Under the banner of socialism and anti-Americanism, he has repackaged bad ideas from Venezuela’s past – statism, authoritarianism, and populism – and taken them to new extremes. Blessed with record-high oil prices, he has created a new class of elites. The poor majority, meanwhile, gets bread-and-circus populism.

In the end, Bolivarian socialism in the 21st Century looks a lot like earlier variants that ended in failure.

Author's Note: This article was originally published at FrontPage Magazine.

November 1, 2007

When is Juror Doubt Reasonable?

By David Paulin

The worldview embraced by the O.J. Simpson jurors has run amuck. A riveting murder trial in Michigan ended last week in a mistrial, demonstrating that some jurors are capable of ignoring serious evidence of horrific crimes.

Orange Amir Taylor III, a 21-year-old African-American and former student at Eastern Michigan University, was accused of smothering or strangling fellow student Laura Dickinson, 22, in her dorm room last December. It seemed like an open-and-shut case. Taylor's semen was found on Dickinson's inner thigh. Strong fiber evidence placed him in the room, as did security cameras, among other evidence.

Taylor's lawyer Alvin Keel nevertheless offered a defense that conceded criminality and perversity during the week-long trial: His client was indeed in Dickinson's room, but only to commit burglary. What about his client's semen? Upon seeing Dickinson's lifeless body, his client masturbated over it, Keel explained:

"Mr. Taylor being in a room with a dead body may be stupid, but stupidity doesn't equal murder," Keel was quoted as saying. "Sperm does not equal penetration and it does not necessarily show asphyxiation," he said, at another point.

To read the rest of this article go to The American Thinker, where this piece was originally published.

August 28, 2007

Former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw has a ‘Don Imus’ Moment at a Convention of Black Journalists

UPDATE: See Thomas Lifson's comments on this post at The American Thinker.

By David Paulin

Not long before he retired as one of CNN’s star anchors, Bernard Shaw used to pass me in the hallways of CNN in Atlanta. I was a writer at in 2000: I was a nobody. Yet the affable Shaw always made eye contact and murmured a friendly “hello.” In the television world of big egos, he seemed like a genuinely nice guy.

So imagine my surprise to learn that Shaw was in fact a closet bigot. It’s the only conclusion I can draw from remarks that the retired 67-year-old CNN star made recently when accepting a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) at Bally’s hotel in Las Vegas.

Perhaps Shaw just got caught up in the spirit of the NABJ, which essentially has a one-track agenda: “Diversity.” Addressing the group, Shaw issued a warning to the main villain of the post-modern left: white males. He declared, “Beyond this ballroom tonight, white males – wake up. Globally, you are an island speck in an ocean of color. The reins of power will weaken and so will your grip — if you do not faithfully support our nation's greatest strength, diversity.”

Shaw was one of CNN’s original anchors when the cable network started in 1980. Watching him over the years, I was undoubtedly like millions of other Americans: I never saw him as a “black journalist.”

I saw him only as a journalist.

Shaw’s remarks must be considered in a certain context. Once upon a time, diversity policies seemed quite noble. They were supposed to remedy past racial injustices; to bring the country together. But in our post-modern era, diversity has become something else – a socially acceptable form of racism. And let’s face it; Shaw’s comments were racist in effect if not intent – to paraphrase former Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ famous remarks about anti-Semitism in academia. Imagine the outrage if Walter Cronkite made similar comments about black Americans at a convention that was limited to fellow white journalists?

In recent years, major news organizations have become obsessed with diversity, an ideology with some central tenets. One is that “racist” barriers are keeping blacks and Hispanics out of editorial positions.

Another tenet is that the racial and ethnic makeup of newsrooms must mirror the makeup of the local community, state, or even the nation. Otherwise, discrimination exists. Lacking court verdicts or lawsuits over alleged newsroom discrimination, this is the most that diversity advocates can muster when making the case for racism in the newsroom.

And some diversity advocates make a remarkably ludicrous claim, one that demeans Americans of all colors. They contend that African-American and Hispanic-American reporters are best qualified to write about members of their respective racial and ethnic groups.

It’s sad that Bernard Shaw lends himself to this madness. Whether or not you liked him, you had to give him credit: He had talent and quiet dignity. What’s more, if any color barriers even existed in newsrooms in the hip 1960s, when Shaw started his career, he easily transcended them. He did this on his merits – not because of a free pass he got because of his skin color.

Apart from Shaw’s racially charged comments, the veteran journalist ignores reality. Hiring managers have for years gone out of their way to hire minority journalists – even when it has meant hiring some not-so-qualified people such as Jason Blair, whose name is synonymous with scandal at The New York Times.

Ironically, the noble ideology of diversity has undermined newsroom meritocracy in a particular odious way. It has stifled the free flow of ideas in newsrooms, author William McGowan pointed out in his book “Coloring the News.” He wrote, “In a perverse Orwellian twist, instead of expanding the bandwidth of opinion, experience, and perspectives that are acknowledged in news coverage and commentary, diversity-oriented journalism has actually allowed a narrow multicultural orthodoxy to restrict debate just at the point when the discourse about our changing national identity needs to be robust, well-informed, and honest.”

Last year, popular trade journal Editor & Publisher (E&P) published a “Shoptalk” column of mine that questioned the diversity gospel that a journalism professor had put forth, a week earlier, in an E&P column on how to cover Hispanic America. My “protest” column, as E&P editor Greg Mitchell called it, provided a counterweight to the Alice in Wonderland logic and implicit racism coming from diversity advocates. In light of Shaw’s comments and many more like them, it is a worthwhile read for those who missed it:


Another Take on 'How to Cover Hispanic America’

Responding to a piece here last week: There's no denying that many newsrooms are indeed staffed mostly by "white folks who are mostly middle aged." But the solution is not to have only Hispanics cover Hispanics -- or fail to train them to cover other communities.

By David Paulin

AUSTIN, Tex. (March 10, 2006) -- When I was an idealistic teenager contemplating a journalism career in the 1970s, two things intrigued me about the journalists and writers whom I admired: their worldliness and commitment to fighting social inequities.

Sure, most of my role models were "white folks who were mostly middle-aged," to borrow a phrase used by Allan Richards in his recent Shoptalk column, “How to Cover Hispanic America – and Why.” But who could fault a guy who moved comfortably in any social situation: starting the day in a gritty inner-city area, interviewing a black or Hispanic cleaning lady about a murder, and then hours later having lunch with a corporate executive or elected official?

Some of the most popular books of that era were testament to such writers and journalists: Oscar Lewis’ opus on Mexican peasants, initially banned in Mexico; John Howard Griffin’s classic “Black Like Me,” the riveting expose on racism in the Jim Crow South, from the perspective of a middle-aged white guy posing as an Afro-American; Michael Harrington’s book exposing the nation's hidden poverty, “The Other America.”

You would never know such writers existed if you accept the world view put forth by Richards, chair of Florida International University's journalism program. According to Richards, the nation's newsrooms need to become much more “diverse," hiring far more Hispanic reporters to intelligently cover the nation's increasingly large Hispanic population.

Has Richards ever heard of the middle-aged white guys I mentioned earlier? Some of his arguments are unfounded. Others are bizarre.

Claiming Hispanics are discriminated against in the nation's newsrooms, he writes: “I have watched many young and talented Hispanic journalism students confront ‘whiteness’ in the newsroom, as they struggled to crack the color and culture barrier and work in the mainstream media.”

Color and culture barriers in 2006? That's a serious charge; and not surprisingly, Richards cites no evidence to support it. But if he indeed knows of such instances of discrimination, he should illuminate E&P's readers with examples. Moreover, he should report such illegal discrimination to the Federal authorities.

Richards also claims that nationwide “barriers” confronting Hispanic journalists have made it “problematic” for them to land jobs outside South Florida. Only a few "lone pioneers," he observes, have gotten jobs in places "not known for diversity."

I've read similar complaints over the years. But they had nothing to do with Richards' claims of “barriers” blocking Hispanic employment. Rather, it was because some of Miami's Hispanics, having grown up in an insular Hispanic environment, simply lacked the confidence to follow the examples of, say, an Oscar Lewis, John Howard Griffin, or Michael Harrington -- and go out and interact with milieus and cultures other than their own. Perhaps their language skills were simply not up to par.

Offering up a truly bizarre anecdote, Richards attempts to explain the “complexities” of varied Hispanic communities – and need for specialized reporting to cover them. He cites the case of a Mexican-American reporter at a Florida paper. Sent out to cover a Venezuelan expatriate community, he failed miserably. Richards quotes the paper's editor as saying: “Biggest mistake we made…it was like apples covering oranges…Same language, very different culture.”

This is astounding. If this reporter was indeed competent – possessed of intellectual curiosity, a certain degree of empathy, and having good interview skills – how is it that he was unable to report on people with whom he shared a common language? Is Richards suggesting that the editor should have sent out a Venezuelan-American reporter to cover an expatriate Venezuelan community?

Richards' claims to the contrary, I have not noticed any “cultural divide” in newsrooms holding back Hispanic journalists. I have seen just the opposite. Thanks to a near obsession in some newsrooms on multiculturalism and affirmative action, hiring managers over the years have based decisions on whom to hire, in part, on race and ethnicity, not necessarily merit. (Just take a look at the “diversity” section of the journalism job board,, which often lists a particular job both under the diversity section and the general section.) Viewed from another perspective, what in fact has been occurring is that qualified white candidates sometimes lose out because of their skin color; not an issue Richards addresses.

Indeed, I have been amazed over the years at how some minority journalists zoomed up the career ladder, obtaining prized internships and a foot in the door at prestige papers, even though their qualifications were not as good as white applicants.

There's no denying, to be sure, that many newsrooms are indeed staffed mostly by “white folks who are mostly middle aged.” But are any pathologies really at work here? I doubt it.

Author's Note:
Allan Richards got the final say on the issue of how to cover Hispanic America, with a second column, “Debate Over Covering ‘Hispanic America’ Continues.” The E&P article is available to subscribers.

August 8, 2007

Would Jesus eat at McDonald's?
Left-wing intellectuals in the Presbyterian Church (USA) invariably blame Israel for the world’s troubles. Now, they’ve got another villain...the Big Mac!

UPDATE: Visit Seraphic Secret for screenwriter Robert J. Avrech's comments on this article, which also ran at Jewish Comment.

By David Paulin
The intellectual elites of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have in recent years joined ranks with the radical left. They vilify Israel, apologize for Islamic terrorists, and cheer on the Palestinian cause. Now, these Presbyterians have another villain: the Big Mac.
America’s most famous hamburger is emblematic of the dark underbelly of globalization, according to David Hadley Jensen, an associate professor of something called “constructive theology” at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. On top of that, McDonald’s and its iconic burger are even at odds with Christian values, Jensen contends.
The professor’s scathing critique is the subject of a recent essay, “The Big Mac and the Lord’s Table: A Theological Interpretation of Globalization.” It’s among several anti-globalization essays in the recent edition of “Insights,” a semiannual faculty journal published by Austin Seminary. Situated on idyllic grounds near the University of Texas campus, the seminary is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), which is no stranger to controversy. In 2004, it initiated steps to divest from companies operating in Israel, an action that ultimately failed.
Ironically, Jensen’s attack comes as the world’s leading food retailer reported increasingly strong sales overseas. Some of its strongest sales occurred in none other than anti-American France and former Cold War enemies China and Russia, according to an earnings statement from the Oak Brook, Illinois-based company. In Europe, McDonald’s sales rose 3.5 percent last April compared to the same month in 2006. And in the Middle East, Africa, and the Asia/Pacific region, sales increased 10.3 percent. It’s yet another example of how ordinary people worldwide embrace slices of Americana that are despised by leftist elites worldwide. Could it be only a coincidence that all-American McDonald’s is seeing some of its strongest sales in foreign countries where individual freedoms have traditionally been in short supply?
Like-Minded Leftists
The left-wing extremism found at many universities is an old story. But it exists as well at many seminaries, where professors embrace an odd mix of Christianity, Marxism, and Edward Said. Seminaries affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) have been particularly problematic in this respect. Austin Seminary is one example.
In late 2005, it hosted a pro-Palestinian conference whose guest speakers included radical University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, an apologist for the 9/11 hijackers and venomous critic of Israel. The speakers at a special dinner were the parents of the late Rachel Corrie, the radical college student who died when she stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer involved in anti-terror operations. One of the event’s organizers was an Austin Seminary professor, Whitney S. Bodman, an ordained minister and expert on Islam. He has praised terror group Hezbollah and worked closely with the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the problematic Muslim group.
Many Americans asked a question after the 9/11 attacks: “Why do they hate us?” An answer is suggested in Jensen’s essay: It’s because America is imposing its culture on other nations. The Big Mac is a case in point.
Jensen’s essay and others in the faculty journal provide yet another example of the troubling alliances being made by leftists today. Anti-globalization advocates have made common cause with radical leftists and even Muslim jihadists. In their own ways, all of them embrace an anti-American and anti-Western worldview. And they're attracted to wacky conspiracy theories as well.
For instance, Jensen writes: “An unexpressed goal of the global march of McDonald’s is cultural homogeneity.” Not surprisingly, though, he cites no supporting evidence for this; no purloined documents from McDonald’s or anything of the sort. Most bizarrely, he contends that Christian values themselves are undermined by the Big Mac and all it represents. He writes, “The McMeal is…a parody of the Eucharist, extending an invitation to all, but embodying only one culture.” Among Christians, the Eucharist relates to the Last Supper in which Christ passed bread to his disciples.
Driving home his case for Big Mac imperialism, Jensen compares a meal eaten at McDonald’s to one served at the “Lord’s Table.”
"Our peculiar North America culture has…bequeathed a meal for the world’s consumption, a meal that gorges a larger number of bellies every day: the Big Mac, fries, and Coke. This meal also embodies distinct practices: of burgers packaged in individual containers that resist sharing, of a maddening rush to the counter, of empty calories rather than food that sustains, of convenience rather than hospitality, of intricate global supply chains ensuring that beef from Brazil arrives in Asia on time, of homogenous tastes rather than sharing that begets moderation."
He concludes, ”Such meals, in the end, enable us to devour all we can quickly without bothering to interact with those hosting the meal.” A graduate of Yale Divinity School, Jensen also contends that McDonald’s is part of a global system (read American system here) that encourages “hoarding” by rich nations – hoarding which supposedly leaves other nations impoverished.
McDonald’s says it serves some 52 million meals worldwide every day. That its outlets are familiar and convenient is something Jensen acknowledges. So who are the retailer's customers? Obviously, they're ordinary people. And obviously, they lack the good taste and social consciousness embraced by Jensen and his privileged elite counterparts who live in trendy places in America and abroad.
The success McDonald’s enjoys overseas is obvious to anybody who has traveled abroad. In the dozen or so countries I’ve visited, its restaurants were usually packed. Sure, the food may not be spectacular or healthy. But no matter: the service is quick and friendly. Above all, it’s a piece of Americana: This seems especially endearing to many customers in foreign countries.
While in Guatemala City, I’ll never forget the charming scene I saw one morning. A young mother led her pajama-clad toddler, a lovely dark-eyed little girl, into an immaculate and orderly McDonald’s. The toddler was wide-eyed. You would have thought she was visiting Disneyland. And not far from where I used to live in Caracas, a nearby McDonald’s overflowed with people every Friday and Saturday evening. A Caracas sociologist told me, “It’s too expensive for many people to go to Miami anymore, but when they go to McDonald’s it’s like being back in the states for a little while.”
Nearby, there were several traditional Venezuelan restaurants and eateries. None of them ever had a fraction of the customers that McDonald’s did; and it was perhaps no coincidence that they were not as well-run, clean and friendly as McDonald’s. And nor did they offer as good a value for the money. It’s a pattern I’ve observed repeatedly when traveling in Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
To be sure, a case can be made against McDonald’s and fast-food culture, and two examples of such social criticism may be found in the book “Fast Food Nation” and documentary film "Super Size Me." One interesting thing about such social criticism is that it may have influenced McDonald’s decision to introduce healthier menus, which reflects the ability of free-markets to adapt to consumer demands and needs. But don’t look for any intelligent social criticism from Jensen and other Marxist Christians: Their social commentary and theological dribble is only dressed up in anti-Americanism.
Unholy McDonald’s?
Using the bible to whip McDonald’s, Jensen writes: “The food and drink of the Lord’s Table always takes shape in local culture.” These meals encourage “sharing and are worth “lingering over,” he says. And they ultimately “become part of a global meal as they remember and celebrate the risen Christ who is present at all tables.”
Jensen never mentions the specific kinds of food found at what he variously calls the “Lord’s Table” or “Lord’s Supper,” except to say that it “celebrates the diversity of God’s children” instead of promulgating McDonald’s “homogenous culture.” This culture, he contends, is “shunned in Christian practices of table fellowship.”
A proper Christian meal must “not erect boundaries around a particular culture at the expense of another,” Jensen explains. “Rather, it invites all cultures to participate in the richness of a meal that takes shape in local practice, connecting the celebration of one meal to all meals where Christ is host.”
Although Jensen says the “verdict is still out on the peril and promise of globalization,” he is clearly unhappy with how it’s unfolding. Citing cherry-picked figures from a U.N. Development Report, he writes, “The habits of the McMeal mimic some patterns of wealth distribution in the global economy.” Moreover, he writes: “Current trends, it seems, only confirm attitudes of hoarding among the wealthiest nations on earth."
Jensen is particularly disturbed by what he describes as an ever widening gap in income ratios between rich and poor nations. Yet he’s silent on corruption and mismanagement in poor countries, which have caused them to fall even further behind nations that have ridden the wave of globalization, and this includes developing nations. How would Jensen propose to redistribute the West’s “hoarded” wealth to countries such as Zimbabwe and Sudan, two of Africa’s most corrupt, authoritarian, and dysfunctional basket cases?
Jensen’s claims to the contrary, rich nations are not “hoarding” wealth. Their wealth is constantly on the move, flowing from banks and investment houses into countries around the word: those with open markets, stable governments, and the rule of law. Profits from McDonald’s form part of this flow, amounting to billions of dollars invested in 30,000 restaurants in the U.S. and more than 100 countries. Is McDonald’s “hoarding” its overseas profits? According to McDonald’s website, “More than 70 percent of McDonald's restaurants worldwide are owned and operated by independent local men and women.” And presumably, a job at McDonald’s would be coveted in many countries. Jensen addresses none of these things.
Others essays in “Insights” offer similarly wacky anti-globalization arguments. Some excerpts:
*Janet L. Parker, a pastor from Arlington, Virginia calls the global economic system (read American system here) “totalitarian in nature.” Evoking the bible, she writes: “Do we serve an economic system oriented toward serving the welfare of the few at the expensive of the many? Or do we serve the God who gifted us with his food, green earth, who calls us to sacrificial love for one another, and who charged us with this responsibility to care for God’s creation?”
*Hak Joon Lee, an associate professor of ethics and community at Brunswick Theological Seminary, suggests America got its comeuppance on 9/11 as the terror attacks “revealed that the entire world is not content with American influence.” Using the rhetoric of moral equivalency, he writes that “U.S. Supremacy and Islamic religious terrorism” have “similar logic and dynamics.” He writes, “Supremacists refuse to treat other human beings as equal to themselves. In an ‘Us vs. Them’ state of mind, supremacists think of themselves as righteous, while demonizing the opponents as evil.”
*Lameck Banda, a minister from Zambia, blames Africa’s dysfunction on the malevolent influence of “Western individualism.” This, he claims, is suppressing the “African identify of communality” and is leading to haphazard urban growth and overpopulation. He contends that these problems in turn are fostering a welter of other problems: poverty and soaring crime; prostitution and street children; and even the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
And just think: McDonald’s is part of all of these atrocities by forcing its anti-Christian culture on foreign countries. This would of course explain the rage of the 9/11 hijackers.
If only it were so.

Author’s Note:
*For more information about the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Austin Seminary in particular, see my two-part series, "Presbyterian Seminaries: Schools for Anti-Semitism?" It was published last year by my friend Robert Avrech, the screenwriter, at his Seraphic Secret blog. Here is Part 1 and Part 2. *Austin Seminary Professor Whitney S. Bodman’s pro-Hezbollah Op-Ed, “Hezbollah aims to defend, rebuild Lebanon,” was published on August 16, 2006 in the Austin American-Statesman, a Cox newspaper. It may be found here at You’ll have to scroll down a bit before you come to it.

August 2, 2007

A Story the AP Plays Down: Released Guantanamo Inmates Return to Battlefield

By David Paulin

The alleged torture of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay prison has been a rallying cry for the anti-war and anti-American left. It’s been a career-making story for reporters, too – especially for those from the Associated Press.

By making regular visits to Guantanamo and later filing Freedom of Information (FOI) actions, AP reporters based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, dug up a shocking litany of headline-making abuses in early 2005. Two staffers from the AP's Caribbean bureau at the time, news editor Paisley Dodds and and bureau chief Michelle Faul, produced some harrowing tales of abuse at Guantanamo.

One of Faul’s articles suggested that a “wide variety of detainees” were not even terrorists. Citing information cherry-picked from hundreds of pages of official documents – obtained through FOI actions against the U.S. government – Faul wrote of hapless innocents whom crafty Pakastani tribesmen “sold” to unwitting Americans for “bounties” of $3,000 to $25,000. These allegations were unsupported -- though Faul put great stock in them.

And there were shocking tales of sordid sexual abuse of upright Muslim detainees. In an article that attracted wide attention, Dodds wrote: “Female interrogators tried to break Muslim detainees at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by sexual touching, wearing a miniskirt and thong underwear and in one case smearing a Saudi man's face with fake menstrual blood, according to an insider's written account."

Terror Chicks Gone Wild,” wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, citing Dodd’s work. Dodds' story also had a big impact on Andrew Sullivan, the conservative gay blogger and author. Tales of “fake menstrual blood” apparently put him over the edge -- turning him into “a fervent supporter of the 'rights' of terrorists,” the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto observed in telling commentary in his online column.

Interestingly, revelations of hot torture chicks were not gleaned from FOI documents. They were from a book manuscript Dodds obtained that was stamped “secret.” The classification was in effect, she explained, “pending a Pentagon review for a planned book that details ways the U.S. military used women as part of tougher physical and psychological interrogation tactics to get terror suspects to talk.”

The manuscript offers “the most revealing account so far of interrogations at the secretive detention camp, where officials say they have halted some controversial techniques,” she wrote.

How did Dodds obtain classified materials whose publication – according to a recent Justice Department ruling – could land her and other AP staffers in prison? It came from none other than the manuscript's author, former Army Sgt. Erik Saar, then 29. In her story, Dodds claimed that he “didn't provide the manuscript or approach AP, but confirmed the authenticity of nine draft pages AP obtained.”

Context is everything. And these revelations must be put into the context of a Guantanamo story that the AP and other media outlets have not wanted to hype. It's that many released Guantanamo detainees have returned to the battlefield.

In a recent story, The Age of Australia reported:

"At least 30 former Guantanamo Bay detainees have been killed or recaptured after taking up arms against allied forces following their release.

"They have been discovered mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not in Iraq, a US Defence Department spokesman told The Age yesterday.

"Commander Jeffrey Gordon said the detainees had, while in custody, falsely claimed to be farmers, truck drivers, cooks, small-arms merchants, low-level combatants or had offered other false explanations for being in Afghanistan.

"We are aware of dozens of cases where they have returned to militant activities, participated in anti-US propaganda or engaged in other activities," said Commander Gordon."

He added, "These former detainees successfully lied to U.S. officials, sometimes for over three years. Common cover stories include going to Afghanistan to buy medicines, to teach the Koran or to find a wife. Many of these stories appear so often, and are subsequently proven false, that we can only conclude that they are part of their terrorist training."

Of course, there’s a big story here – one that might be summed up in a headline: “Incompetent U.S. Officials Release Terrorists.”

But don’t expect the AP to write it.

There's another context, as well, that's missing here. Gruesome beheadings and unspeakable torture is being undertaken in Iraq and elsewhere in the Islamic world on a regular basis. This is real torture. Yet no AP reporters work themselves into frenzy over such atrocities. Perhaps it would be hard to do. After all, no FOI requests can be made in places like Saudi Arabia, Libya, the Palestinian territories, and insurgent-controlled parts of Iraq.

Dodds, incidentally, went on to win at least two separate awards for her Guantanamo reporting. And she got a promotion: London bureau chief. As to Faul, she went onto head the AP’s news operations in Johannesburg, South Africa (although it's debatable as to whether that was a promotion).

Scandal pays – especially when it’s U.S. scandals that are being uncovered.

July 26, 2007

A Second Iraqi Media Worker Dies for The New York Times

The mainstream media practices its own form of apartheid in Iraq

By David Paulin

It’s an Iraq story that reporters ought to fall over themselves to cover: Iraqis employed by U.S. companies are being sacrificed for the sake of corporate profits. You might call it a sort of corporate apartheid. But you won’t find the Bush administration or Halliburton in this scandal. The culprits are America’s most illustrious media giants – The New York Times, Associated Press, and a number of others. At issue is their practice of “hotel journalism.”

American journalists for much of the war have stayed holed up in hotels and well-guarded homes in the Green Zone. Most write their stories and do phone interviews there. And they communicate with Iraqis whom their companies employ as reporters, translators, and photographers.

Hastily trained, most of these Iraqis lack the professional backgrounds that even a small-town weekly paper in the U.S. would demand. Yet they are shaping our view of the war. These Iraqis, moreover, are dying in large numbers; yet they earn local wages and benefits; and though their compensation is high by local standards, it’s still Third World.

There’s a curious irony here. Liberal papers like The New York Times rail against the economic injustices of outsourcing; yet they demonstrate no such anger over their own employment practices.

Some Iraqi media workers, to be sure, have demonstrated courage and a commitment to a democratic Iraq, and it appears that Hassan was one of them. But others appear to have questionable loyalties or understanding of what constitutes good journalism. One Iraqi AP photographer, Bilal Hussein, is even being held by U.S. military authorities for allegedly having improper ties to terrorists. Oddly, some Iraqi photographers have an uncanny ability to arrive, unimpeded, to cover unfolding terrorist activity or the downing of aircraft. The AP has has vigorously defended Hussein.

Whether exceptional, mediocre, are despicable, all Iraqi media workers have one thing in common. They grew up in a brutal Stalinist dictatorship – one simmering with social tensions and devoid of intellectual freedom and a responsible press.

'Hotel Journalism’

The blogesphere has registered the harshest criticism of “hotel journalism.” But earlier this month, The Times addressed the issue in some unusually frank and circumspect articles regarding the death of one of its media workers. He was the second murder victim in ten months.

Khalid W. Hassan, 23, gave his life on July 13 for the Gray Lady. A Palestinian Sunni, Hassan was driving to work when he was shot to death under circumstances that The Times said were unclear. The well-liked Iraqi interpreter and translator started with the newspaper of record when he was just 19 years old. And on Sept. 19, 2005 a highly respected Iraqi stringer, Fakher Haider, 38, was kidnapped and murdered in the port city of Basra under mysterious circumstances.

The two are among at least 129 Iraqi journalists and media workers who have been murdered or killed in hostilities since the U.S.-led invasion three years ago, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In contrast, only two American journalists have died.

Paying tribute to Hassan, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said Hassan comprised a “large, sometimes unsung” group of media workers who “take enormous risks every day. Without them, Americans’ understanding of what is happening on the ground in Iraq would be much, much poorer.” In a 670-word statement on a Times blog, Baghdad bureau chief John F. Burns tiptoed around the issue of exactly how his paper uses its Iraqi employees. An excerpt:

“Our Iraqi reporters — who do double duty as interpreters when they accompany New York-based correspondents and photographers on assignments — are the bedrock of our enterprise.

“This is not to confirm what some of the more scathing critics of the American media’s performance in Iraq have alleged, which is that American reporters in Baghdad practice a form of “hotel journalism” — meaning that for most of what we write we rely on the reporting of Iraqi staff members who venture beyond our well-guarded compounds, and rarely do so ourselves. There is hardly ever a day when one or more of our American reporters is not out in the city, or on embeds in Baghdad and beyond with American and Iraqi troops, and the results can be measured, on any day, by the authenticity of the reports that appear in the paper.

“But it would be foolish to deny that there are occasions when a sensible calibration of risk deters us from going out on assignment ourselves. Often, those judgments apply in equal measure to our Iraqi reporters, too. But there are other times when an Iraqi, blending into the environment in ways that no foreigner can, feels safe in taking on an assignment that we judge to be too hazardous to undertake ourselves. Our principle is that any Iraqi leaving our compound on assignment — whether reporter, driver or guard — does so only as a “willing partner,” and after a thorough security review of the assignment beforehand."

Burns is one of the most well respected Western journalists in Iraq. But his comments must be considered within the context of who is dying for America’s Fourth Estate. It’s certainly not Americans. Of the two who died, only one was a staff writer – Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly. He died at the start of the war when his Humvee careened off a road after coming under enemy fire. The other was Steven Vincent, a freelancer who was kidnapped and murdered in Basra one year ago.

Dying in Large Numbers

In all, at least 152 journalists and media workers have died: 109 were murdered and 43 killed due to hostilities, according to CPJ. Sixty-four (42 percent) worked for international news organizations – including The New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, and McClatchy (formerly Knight Ridder). Iraqis comprised 90 of those whom the CPJ classified as “journalists.”

Some American reporters, to be sure, have faced perilous situations. Following some close calls, Times reporter Dexter Filkins even packed a sidearm for a while, much to the consternation of Baghdad’s upright bureau chief at the time, Susan Sachs.

Burns’ comments to the contrary, the blood Iraqis are spilling for The Times and other news outlets underscores the apartheid-like nature of the mainstream media’s war coverage. AP Managing Editor Mike Silverman summed up things two years ago, telling The Times: “The main obstacle we face is the severe limitation on our movement and our ability to get out and report. It’s very confining for our staff to go into Baghdad and have to spend most of their time on the fifth floor of the Palestine Hotel.”

That’s how Knight Ridder (now McClautchy) has operated too, said its Baghdad bureau chief two years ago. “We’re still spending a lot of time inside the hotel,” noted 25-year-old Hannah Allam, now based in Cairo. “Even if we do go out, we don’t stay in any one place more than 20 minutes; and then we go back to the hotel. But we’re doing a lot of phone interviews. We’re sending our Iraqi staff members out a lot more, to gather information and to conduct interviews.”

Months later, Allam made a splash with a controversial memo addressed to Knight Ridder editors that was widely circulated on the Internet. She attacked a columnist at the St. Paul Pioneer Press – the Knight Ridder paper she worked at not long before Baghdad – who had dared to criticize Knight Ridder’s reporting as being overly negative.

'Outsourcing' the News

The heavy use of non-staff personnel in Iraq is part of a trend in the news business dating to the 1980s. Since then, print and television organizations have increasingly adopted corporate America’s outsourcing model: They’ve closed dozens of foreign bureaus. And to maintain foreign coverage and appearances, they’ve relied on increasing numbers of freelancers, “contract reporters,” and people they hire locally. But while outsourcing may work for corporate America, it’s a miserable model for foreign news gathering.

In Iraq, the system of journalistic apartheid encourages distorted reporting for a number of reasons. Like freelance journalists and temporary media workers everywhere, Iraqi’s media personnel have no real job security. They’re either hired on a temporary basis or work as freelancers, meaning they’re paid for each assignment or story or photograph.They essentially chase a paycheck with every assignment. As a result, they have a built-in incentive to cheat. This may involve hyping a story or photograph to ensure they’re used – and to ensure their services remain in demand.

Cheats have an advantage when working abroad: They face little accountability. Who is going to complain when a story gets a few facts screwed up? And to whom would they complain? A weekly paper in the U.S. is apt to get a complaint for something as minor as a misspelled name.

In the chaos of Iraq, reporters can fabricate quotes, slant coverage, or hype stories – and they’ll probably get away with it. Biased editors tend not to question articles, quotes, and photos that confirm their biases. And well-meaning though inexperienced freelancers and temporary media workers are unlikely to assert themselves in a dispute with an editor. They must think about their next paycheck.

"There's a dramatic relationship between changes in the industry and use of freelancers. It's something that a lot of people are very worried about," observed Josh Friedman, director of the Columbia journalism school’s international program. "If you complain, employers will just drop you and get somebody else."

Friedman was quoted in a recent article about Jill Carroll, the American freelancer who was kidnapped in Baghdad while on assignment for The Christian Science Monitor. The fascinating piece in Radar, an online magazine, echoed the first two posts published by this website, more than one year ago.

Fortunately, some counterbalance has been provided by well-informed bloggers who are scrutinizing the media’s war coverage. Without them, public opinion against the war would probably be even lower that it has been, noted author James Q. Wilson.

High-Risk Job

Of course, the most brutal aspect of Iraq’s journalistic apartheid is that Iraqi media workers are more likely to die than their American counterparts, who have well-paying staff positions and good benefits. There are systemic reasons for this. For one thing, freelancers and temporary workers are compromised due, once again, to a lack of job security and professional standing. They can’t easily turn down too many assignments, especially if other media workers are willing to do them. Obviously, they’ll risk getting replaced. And if they're replaced, it’s unlikely they’ll have the right to appeal the decision to a U.S.-based personnel manager.

The news business is competitive, and news managers are expected to produce. When I had a stint as a wire service reporter in the Caribbean, my bureau chief and news editor suggested that their photographer in Jamaica was a coward. They talked of getting rid of him, complaining he was reluctant to charge into dangerous flare-ups of civil unrest, when armed gangs were shooting it out.

The photographer, a Jamaican father with children, was paid for individual assignments and photos. As a black Jamaican, he could easily be mistaken for a combatant, as opposed to an impartial photojournalist. The editors, single women tenaciously wedded to their careers, nevertheless fretted over the photos they were missing. I knew the photographer, and they were wrong about him. It didn’t matter. The editors had one concern – results.

Interestingly, the photographer was not issued a bullet-proof vest, even though I, as a Jamaica-based contract correspondent, got one. When I pointed this out to the photographer, he laughed nervously.

What kinds of pressures are being put on freelancers and media workers in Iraqi and other high-risk areas? And what responsibilities do media companies have toward them?

“The relationship is informal contract labor,” pointed out McClatchy’s managing editor for international coverage, Mark Seibel. “How far should an international news organization go to help them? There is probably a need to review and go over polices.”

Seibel has lots of experience with informal labor. As a Miami Herald senior editor in the late 1990s, he oversaw the paper’s international edition: Its masthead listed me as its “Caracas correspondent.” A non-staff position, it paid a few hundred dollars per article. It could be a tough way to make a living. Jill Carroll would attest to that. In a colorful piece in American Journalism Review, she described her hardscrabble freelancing days in Baghdad.

Hassan apparently had money problems of his own, despite his prestigious job with The Times. One Times editor said he “spent most of his salary on rent for a cramped apartment for him, his mother and his siblings.” Fortunately, The Times set up a fund for Hassan’s family, noted The Times blog. People wishing to contribute were advised to “please send an email to with ‘fund for Khalid Hassan’s family’ in the subject line.”

Beyond problems arising from its system of journalistic apartheid, news outlets distort reality by adopting a morally neutral worldview, part of today’s journalistic conceit promulgated by media elites. Speaking years ago at a Columbia University seminar broadcast by PBS, veteran CBS newsman Mike Wallace famously declared that American war correspondents were neutral observers and thus had no obligation to warn U.S. troops of an impending ambush. “No, you don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter,” he declared. The ethical thing to do, as a journalist, would be to film the slaughter. And when criticizing the U.S. military’s detention of Bilal Hussein, the AP photographer, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said: “There’s no way to cover an insurgency without having contact with insurgents.”

Steven Vincent, the murdered freelancer, wrote eloquently of how such moral neutrality and equivalency was distorting our picture of Iraq. He preferred words such as “paramilitaries” and "death squads" instead of “insurgents” to define the enemy.

'If it Bleeds, It Leads'

And then there’s the problematic way in which news is defined and presented. Conflict is stressed above all else: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Most Americans get their Iraq news from the AP, and the opening paragraphs of its stories – those which command the most attention – invariably stress the most recent suicide bombing. It’s part of a standard “hard news” formula in which conflict is hyped to the limit. But it’s not a good way to cover a war.

After all, you could write nearly every story the same way out of Venezuela, which has a population of about 27 million people, about the same as Iraq’s. Like Iraq, Venezuela is a chaotic and violent place with reported murders having doubled during eight years of Hugo Chavez. There were 12,557 last year. That’s more than 34 ever day – the equivalent of about one suicide bombing every day in Iraq.

Imagine the kind of stories you’d see out of Venezuela if it were covered like Iraq. Here’s an example:

Venezuela’s Chavez opens food market amid mounting violence, deaths

By The Associated Press
CARACASPresident Hugo Chavez, flanked by Cindy Sheehan and Danny Glover, opened a new government-subsidized food market today amid mounting violence across the country.

Over the last three days, there were more than 150 murders across the South American nation, with most taking place in the grimy hillside slums where Chavez’s support is the strongest.

Chavez drew smiles from Sheehan and Glover when he said President George Bush could “learn a thing or two about eliminating poverty and creating jobs” with the subsidized market.

Meanwhile, much of Caracas was without water due to city-wide outage, the third in as many weeks. Electricity outages occurred in parts of the city, too. These problems have plagued the city, Venezuela’s capital, for years.

Chavez’s critics blame the runaway murder rate on government mismanagement and official corruption, which they contend has led to increased poverty and deteriorating basic services, despite record-high oil profits. But Chavez blames the violence on “oligarchs” whom he says are instigating the violence.

Aside from some artistic license, there’s nothing wrong with the basic facts here; you could put them in any story. Yet in reality it’s not quite so grim in Caracas, where I used to live and still visit: Streets are choked with traffic, people crowd sidewalk cafes, and fashion-conscious women visit beauty parlors. In Iraq, similar examples of normality may be found. When she was Knight Ridder’s bureau chief, Allam said she would unwind by treating herself to a manicure at a local beauty parlor. Hassan, for his part, was recalled as a fun-loving man-about-town who enjoyed his work.

All in all, you might get better news coverage all around if you covered Iraq like Venezuela – and Venezuela like Iraq. Allam, for her part, is sure to find a beauty parlor in Caracas that would suit her.

Additional Reading:

*See Kesher Talk's coverage of a panel discussion in New York, "Fixers on the Front Lines."